Lafayette for Young Americans - Rupert Holland

Lafayette Wins the Friendship of Washington

In December, 1777, Washington's army went into winter quarters at Valley Forge. That winter was to test the courage and endurance of the soldiers, for they were ill-clad, ill-provisioned, and the road to victory appeared a long and weary one. Fortunately the commander-in-chief was a man of intrepid soul, one who could instill confidence into the men about him.

Lafayette quickly found that all the people of the young republic were not in agreement about the war. Men called Tories joined the British army, and in countless other ways hampered the work of Congress. Business was at such a standstill that it was almost impossible to obtain clothing, shoes, and the other supplies that were so urgently needed, and as Congress had no power to impose and collect taxes it was hard to raise any money. The different states had each its jealousies of the others and each its own ends to serve, and indeed in 1777 the union was so loosely knitted that it was a wonder that it held together at all.

Washington had chosen Valley Forge as his winter quarters because from there he could watch the enemy, keep the British to their own picket lines, and cut off supplies going into Philadelphia. Otherwise, however, the place had little to recommend it. The farmhouses in the neighborhood could hold only a few of the two thousand men who were on the sick-list, whose shoeless feet were torn and frozen from marching and who were ill from hunger and exposure. For the rest the soldiers had to build their own shelters, and they cut logs in the woods, covered them with mud, and made them into huts, each of which had to house fourteen men. There the American troops, lacking necessary food and blankets, shivered and almost starved during the long winter.

There were times when Washington would have liked to make a sortie or an attack on the enemy, but his men were not in condition for it. Constantly he wrote to Congress, urging relief for his army. Once a number of members of Congress paid a visit to Valley Forge, and later sent a remonstrance to the commander-in-chief, urging him not to keep his army in idleness but to march on Philadelphia. To this Washington answered, "I can assure those gentlemen that it is a much easier and less distressing thing to draw remonstrances in a comfortable room, by a good fireside, than to occupy a cold, bleak hill, and sleep under frost and snow, without clothes or blankets. However, although they seem to have little feeling for the naked and distressed soldiers, I feel superabundantly for them; and from my soul I pity those miseries, which it is neither in my power to relieve nor prevent."

All those hardships Lafayette also shared, setting his men an example of patience and fortitude that did much to help them through the rigorous winter, and winning again and again the praise of his commander for his devotion.

[Illustration] from Lafayette for Young Americans by Rupert Holland


In the meantime some men of influence, known as the "Conway Cabal," from the name of one of the leaders, plotted to force Washington from the chief command, and put General Greene in his place. They wanted to use Lafayette as a cats-paw, and decided that the first step was to separate him from Washington's influence. With this object in view they planned an invasion of Canada, the command of the expedition to be given to Lafayette. But Lafayette saw through the plotting, and refused to lead the expedition except under Washington's orders and with De Kalb as his second in command. He also showed where he stood when he was invited to York to meet some of the members of Congress and generals who were opposing his leader. At a dinner given in his honor he rose, and, lifting his glass, proposed a toast to "The health of George "Washington, our noble commander-in-chief!" The party had to drink the toast, and they saw that the Frenchman was not to be swerved from his loyalty to his chief.

Congress had decided on the expedition to Canada, though the conspirators now saw that their plot had failed, and so Lafayette set out for Albany in February, 1778, to take command of the army of invasion. But when he got there he found that nothing had been done by way of preparation, and that none of those in authority were able to help him. Twelve hundred ill-provided men were all he could raise, altogether too few and too poorly armed for such an ambitious enterprise. Very much disappointed, he had to give up the idea of leading such an army. More and more he grew convinced that all the hopes of America rested on Washington.

That Washington might know his feelings, Lafayette wrote to him. "Take away for an instant," he said, "that modest diffidence of yourself (which, pardon my freedom, my dear general, is sometimes too great, and I wish you could know, as well as myself, what difference there is between you and any other man) , and you would see very plainly that, if you were lost for America, there is no one who could keep the army and the revolution for six months. . . . I am now fixed to your fate, and I shall follow it and sustain it as well by my sword as by all means in my power. You will pardon my importunity in favor of the sentiment which dictated it."

Washington was no less devoted to Lafayette. When the latter returned disappointed from Albany the commander said to him, "However sensibly your ardor for glory may make you feel this disappointment you may be assured that your character stands as fair as it ever did, and that no new enterprise is necessary to wipe off an imaginary stain."

And Washington's view was now so strongly held by Congress that it immediately voted that it had "a high sense of the prudence, activity, and zeal of the Marquis de Lafayette," and that it was "fully persuaded nothing has, or would have been, wanting on his part or on the part of the officers who accompanied him to give the expedition the utmost (possible effect."

Lafayette went back to Valley Forge to cheer his soldiers, and there, early in May, 1778, news came that Benjamin Franklin had succeeded in his efforts in France and that the government of Louis XVI. had decided on "armed interference "in the affairs of America, and that a treaty of alliance had been signed between the United States and the French king.

The army at Valley Forge was wild with delight at this news. How it must have cheered Lafayette to know that his own country now stood with the young republic of the west! Washington proclaimed a holiday and held a review of his troops. Then the commander planned a new and more vigorous campaign.

The British, now foreseeing possible French as well as American attack, decided to give up Philadelphia and fall back on New York. Washington learned of this, and in order to keep a check on the movements of his opponents, he sent Lafayette with a strong force of two thousand picked men to keep as close to the British lines as possible.

Lafayette joyfully led his command to a ridge called Barren Hill that overlooked the Schuylkill. From here he could watch the road from Philadelphia, and he at once fortified his camp. British scouts brought reports of this to their generals, and the latter decided it would be a capital plan to defeat the Frenchman's forces and capture the Marquis. This they considered so easy to accomplish that Generals Howe and Clinton sent out invitations to their friends to a dinner at their headquarters "to meet Monsieur the Marquis de Lafayette."

On the morning of May twentieth eight thousand British and Hessian soldiers with fifteen pieces of artillery marched out of Philadelphia by one road to take Lafayette in the rear, while by another road a force of grenadiers and cavalry marched to attack his right wing, and a third column, commanded by Generals Howe and Clinton in person, with the admiral, Lord Howe, accompanying them as a volunteer, took a third road to attack the Marquis in front. In this way the enemy forces were completely surrounding the American position, except on the side of the river, by which they considered escape impossible.

Lafayette was talking with a young woman who had agreed to go into Philadelphia and try to obtain information on the pretext of visiting her relations there, when word was brought him that redcoats had been seen in the rear. He was expecting a small force of dragoons, and his first idea was that it was these who were approaching. But, being a prudent commander, he at once sent out scouts, and these quickly reported the advance of a large force. Immediately he made a change of front under cover of the stone houses and the woods. Then messengers dashed up with news of the real state of affairs. His little command was about to be attacked in a three-cornered fight by an overwhelming number of the enemy.

It was a ticklish position, and Lafayette came within a hair's breadth of being trapped and captured. His men called out to him that he was completely surrounded. In the confusion of the moment he had to keep on smiling, as he afterward said. It was a test fit to try the skill of a much more experienced general than the young Frenchman. But this one had studied his ground thoroughly, and lost not a moment in deciding on his course. Back of his men was a road, hidden from the British by trees, which led to a little-used crossing known as Matson's Ford, a place unknown to the enemy, though they were, as a matter of fact, much nearer to it than Lafayette was.

The Marquis quickly threw out "false heads of columns," that is, a few men here and there, who were to march through the woods at different points, and give the impression that his whole army was advancing to battle. The British general saw these "false heads "and, taking them to be the advance guards of the Americans, halted to form his lines. Meantime Lafayette sent all his other troops at the double-quick down the hidden road and across the ford, bringing up the rear himself and waiting until he was joined by the men who had formed the false columns.

The small American army was almost all across the ford before the enemy realized his mistake and began to attack. Then, as the three British columns climbed the hill to crush the Americans according to their plans, they met only each other. They tried to make an attack on Lafayette's rear, but by that time he was out of their reach. He crossed the Schuylkill and reached the camp at Valley Forge without the loss of a single man, to the great delight and relief of Washington, who had heard of the danger in which Lafayette stood and had ordered signal guns fired to warn him of it.

Lafayette had a good story to tell the commander-in-chief on his return. A small body of Indian warriors had been stationed in ambush to attack any stray parties of the enemy. As the Indians lay in the bushes they saw a company of grenadiers in tall bearskin hats and scarlet coats coming up the road. Never having seen such men as these before the Indians were seized with terror, threw down their arms, and yelling as loud as they could, made a dash for the river. The grenadiers, on their part, seeing the painted faces and hearing the yells, thought they had come on a crowd of devils, and hurried away as fast as they could in the opposite direction.

Washington complimented Lafayette on what had really amounted to a victory, the bringing his men in safety from an attack by overwhelming forces, and advised Congress of the Frenchman's "timely and handsome retreat in great order."

And so Generals Howe and Clinton were unable to present to their guests at the dinner at their headquarters that evening "Monsieur the Marquis de Lafayette," as they had intended.

If the British generals meant to use their armies in the field it was clear that they could not stay in Philadelphia indefinitely. As Franklin said, instead of their having taken Philadelphia, Philadelphia had taken then). They had spent the winter there in idleness, and unless they purposed to spend the summer there in the same fashion they must be on the move. Washington foresaw this, and called a council of war to decide on plans for his forces, and at this council General Charles Lee, who was then second in command, insisted that the Americans were not strong enough to offer effective opposition to the enemy, although Generals Greene, Wayne, Cadwalader, and Lafayette expressed contrary opinions. Then, early in the morning of June 18, 1778, General Howe's army evacuated Philadelphia, and crossed the Delaware on their way to New York.

Washington instantly prepared to follow. General Maxwell was sent out in advance with a division of militia to impede the enemy's progress by burning bridges and throwing trees across the roads. The bulk of the American army followed, and when they arrived near Princeton, in New Jersey, Washington called another council. Here Lafayette made a stirring plea for immediate action. But Lee again opposed this, and the council decided, against Washington's own judgment, not to bring on a general engagement with the enemy.

Almost immediately, however, the advance of General Clinton threatened one of the American detachments, and Lee was ordered to check this. He declined to do so, saying it was contrary to the decision of the council of war. At once the command was given to Lafayette, who took the appointment with the greatest eagerness.

But the Marquis had hardly more than planned his advance when General Lee interfered again. The latter saw that if the movement was successful all the honor of it would go to Lafayette, and this was not at all according to his wishes. So he appealed to Washington to replace him in his command, and also went to Lafayette and asked the latter to retire in his favor. "I place my fortune and my honor in your hands," he said; "you are too generous to destroy both the one and the other."

He was right; Lafayette was too chivalrous to refuse such a request. Lee had placed Washington in an awkward situation, but the Frenchman's tact and good-feeling, qualities which had already greatly endeared him to all the Americans he had met, relieved the commander-in-chief of the need of offending Lee. Lafayette immediately wrote to Washington, "I want to repeat to you in writing what I have told to you; which is, that if you believe it, or if it is believed, necessary or useful to the good of the service and the honor of General Lee to send hint down with a couple of thousand men or any greater force, I will cheerfully obey and serve him, not only out of duty, but out of what I owe to that gentleman's character."

No wonder Washington liked a man who could be so unselfish as that! He gave the command back to Lee, and arranged that Lafayette should lead the advance.

Early the following morning Washington ordered an attack on the British at Monmouth Court House, and on June 28, 1778, the battle of Monmouth was fought. The result might have been very different if Lafayette, and not Lee, had been in command. For Lee delayed, and when he did finally move forward he assaulted what he thought was a division of the enemy, but what turned out to be the main body. I3e was driven back, tried another attack, got his officers confused by his contradictory orders, and at last gave the word for a retreat, which threatened to become a rout. At this point Washington rode up, questioned the officers, got no satisfactory answer as to what had happened, and was so indignant that when he reached General Lee he took the latter to task in the strongest terms. Then he gave instant orders to make a stand, and by his superb control of the situation succeeded in having his men repulse all further attacks.

Lafayette meantime had led his cavalry in a charge, had done his best to stem the retreat, and when Washington arrived reformed his line upon a hill, and with the aid of a battery drove back the British. By his efforts and those of the commander-in-chief the day was finally partly saved and the American army maneuvered out of disaster.

Night came on and the troops camped where they were. Washington, wrapped in his cloak, slept at the foot of a tree, with Lafayette beside him. And when they woke in the morning they found that the enemy had stolen away, leaving their wounded behind them.

So the honors of war at Monmouth, in spite of General Lee, lay with Washington. The enemy, however, escaped across New Jersey and reached New York without any further attacks by the Americans.

When Sir Henry Clinton arrived near Sandy Hook he found the English fleet riding at anchor in the lower bay, having just come from the Delaware. Heavy storms had broken through the narrow strip of sand that connects Sandy Hook with the mainland, and it was now divided by a deep channel. A bridge was made of the ships' boats, and Clinton's army crossed over to the Hook, and was distributed on Long Island, Staten Island, and in New York. In the meantime Washington moved his troops from Monmouth to Paramus, where the Americans rested.

Now a French fleet of fourteen frigates and twelve battle-ships, under the command of Count d'Estaing, reached the mouth of the Delaware at about that time. Monsieur Gerard, the minister sent to the United States by the court of France, and Silas Deane, were on board, and when D'Estaing heard that Lord Howe's squadron had left the Delaware he sent Gerard and Deane up to Philadelphia in a frigate, and sailed along the coast to Sandy Hook, where he saw the English fleet at anchor inside. He had considerable advantage over Lord Howe in point of strength, and at once prepared to attack the enemy squadron. Anticipating this, Washington crossed the Hudson River at King's Ferry, and on July twentieth took up a position at White Plains.

The French fleet, however, could not make the attack. They could find no pilots who were willing to take the large ships into New York harbor, for all the pilots agreed that there was not enough water there, and the French admiral's own soundings confirmed their opinion.

Washington and D'Estaing therefore agreed on a joint expedition against Newport, in Rhode Island. Washington sent orders to General Sullivan at Providence to ask the states of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island to supply enough militia to make up an army of five thousand men. At the same time he sent Lafayette with two thousand men from the Hudson to Providence to support the French naval attack.

On July twenty-ninth the French fleet reached Point Judith and anchored about five miles from Newport. General Sullivan and Lafayette and some other officers went on board to make plans for the joint attack. The British troops numbered about six thousand men, and they were strongly intrenched. The allies had some four thousand men on the French ships and between nine and ten thousand Americans at Providence.

Disputes arose as to the best plan of campaign; it was argued whether the men of the two nations would fight better separately or together. Then the English fleet appeared in the distance, and D'Estaing, considering that it was his chief business to destroy the enemy squadron, at once stood out to sea. A violent storm came up, driving the two fleets apart, and doing great damage to ships on both sides. When the storm subsided D'Estaing insisted on sailing his fleet to Boston to make needed repairs, and so the joint expedition came to an end, without having struck a blow. General Sullivan's plans were in confusion. Lafayette rode to Boston and begged the French admiral to come back as soon as he could. At last D'Estaing promised to land his sailors and march them overland to Newport; but before he could do this the British were strongly reinforced, and Lafayette had to gallop back to protect his own rear-guard forces. The Americans were in peril, but again, as at Monmouth, he was able to save them from defeat.

There was great disappointment over the failure of the attack on Newport, and this was increased by the feeling that there had been disputes between the American and French commanders. Lafayette had all he could do to make each side appreciate the other. In this he was greatly helped by Washington, who wrote to both the French and the American generals, soothing their discontent, patching up their differences, and urging future union for the sake of the common cause.

It was now autumn, and there was little prospect of a further campaign that year. Wearied by the many misunderstandings, distressed by the failure of the joint attack, homesick and sad over the news of the death of his little daughter in France, Lafayette decided to ask for a leave of absence and go back to France on furlough. In October he reached Philadelphia and presented his request. Washington, much as he disliked to lose Lafayette's services even for a short time, seconded his wishes. And Congress, which only sixteen months before had hesitated to accept his services, now (lid all it could to pay him the greatest honor. It thanked him for his high assistance and zeal, it directed the American minister in Paris to present him with a sword of honor, and it ordered its best war-ship, the frigate Alliance, to convey him to France. Henry Laurens, the president of Congress, wrote to King Louis XVI. that Congress could not allow Lafayette to depart without testifying its appreciation of his courage, devotion, patience, and the uniform excellence of conduct which had won the confidence of the United States and the affection of its citizens.

And finally Monsieur Gerard, the French minister at Philadelphia, wrote to his government in Paris, "You know how little inclined I am to flattery, but I cannot resist saying that the prudent, courageous, and amiable conduct of the Marquis de Lafayette has made him the idol of the Congress, the army, and the people of America."

With words like these ringing in his ears, Lafayette said good-bye to George Washington in October, 1778, and rode away from camp, bound for Boston, where he was to board the frigate Alliance.