Lafayette01

Statue of Major General Marquis Gilbert de Lafayette

After my bike ride at the end of last week to see L’Hermione, the 18th-century French war ship which brought General Lafayette to the American colonies in 1780 with news of the French assistance in the American Revolution, I decided for this ride to go to see a local statue of him, entitled Major General Marquis Gilbert de Lafayette.  The statue is located in Lafayette Square, which is also named after him, and is located just north of the White House, on H Street between 15th and 17th Streets (MAP).

The statue of General Lafayette was commission by the U.S. Congress and created by a French sculptor and painter named Jean Alexandre Joseph Falguiere. It was cast in 1890, and unveiled without ceremony in April of 1891.  The inscription on the base of the north side of the statue reads, “To General la Fayette and his compatriots, 1777-1783, Derville Farbre, by the Congress in commemoration of the services rendered by General Lafayette and his compatriots during the struggle for the independence of the United States of America.” It is part of the “American Revolution Statuary”, a group of fourteen statues scattered throughout D.C., mainly in squares and traffic circles, which are listed as a group on the National Register of Historic Places.

Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roche Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette was born in 1757 into a wealthy noble family.  Before his second birthday, his father, a Colonel of grenadiers was killed when he was struck by a cannonball while fighting a British-led coalition at the Battle of Minden. At the age of twelve, his mother passed away, leaving him a young and very wealthy orphan. In 1771, at the age of fourteen, Lafayette entered the Royal Army. Then when he was sixteen, Lafayette married Marie Adrienne Francoise de Noailles, who was related to the King, thus allying himself with one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in France.

But Lafayette was never impressed with status or riches, longing instead for military glory. However, two years after marrying into the royal family, he lost his military commission, like many other noblemen, when the government reduced military spending. This sent his life in another direction, one which would lead him to America.

At a dinner in August of 1775, Lafayette came into contact with the Duke of Gloucester, who spoke with sympathy of the struggle going on in the colonies. He became convinced that the American cause in its revolutionary war was noble. In fact, Lafayette would always remember this dinner as the turning point of his life. “My heart was enlisted,” he later confessed in his memoirs, “and I thought only of joining my colors to those of the revolutionaries.” Lafayette then set about studying the ideals of the American Revolution while making plans to enlist in the Continental Army.

At that time, a representative of the Continental Congress named Silas Deane was sent to France to recruit officers. And even though Lafayette was only nineteen, spoke almost no English, and had no experience in war, Deane offered him a written agreement that he would be commissioned a major general. The King of France, however, issued a decree forbidding French officers from serving in America, specifically naming Lafayette. So Lafayette secretly and against the wishes of the French government, bought a shop named the La Victoire and sailed to America, where he announced himself a volunteer.

Lafayette arrived in America in June of 1777, and by the end of the summer he had met General Washington and a friendship developed between the two men which lasted as long as Washington lived. Their bond became so strong that when Lafayette was shot in the leg during the Battle of Brandywine, Washington sent his own surgeon to care for him, telling the doctor to treat the young Frenchman as if he were Washington’s own son.

Lafayette arrived in America in June of 1777, and by the end of the summer he had met General Washington. A friendship subsequently developed between the two men which lasted as long as Washington lived. Their bond became so strong that when Lafayette was shot in the leg during the Battle of Brandywine, Washington sent his own surgeon to care for him, telling the doctor to treat the young Frenchman as if he were Washington’s own son. (Sharing the same sentiment, Lafayette would years later name his son George Washington Lafayette.) After Lafayette recovered, he became a valued member of Washington’s close-knit military family. At the end of that year, Lafayette went with Washington and the army into winter quarters at Valley Forge.

Lafayette was overjoyed when news of the French alliance arrived in early 1778, but decided to return to France in June in hopes of winning even more military support for the American cause. Lafayette had also hoped to be put in charge of the French army, but Marshall Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau was chosen instead. In 1780 Lafayette returned to America aboard L’Hermione, delivering news to George Washington of full French aid in the colonialists’ cause, helping turn the tide of the American Revolution.

Washington then sent Lafayette to Virginia to stop British raids along the James River. While there, General Charles Cornwallis’ forces arrived in Virginia, Lafayette harassed the British general until Washington and Rochambeau could lay siege to him in Yorktown. In October 1781, there was no prouder soldier than Lafayette at Cornwallis’ surrender to a combined American and French force at the Siege of Yorktown, ending the war.

Still only 24 years old, Lafayette returned again to France after the American Revolution, where he was welcomed as the “Hero of Two Worlds.” Back home, he rejoined the French army and organized trade agreements with Thomas Jefferson, the American ambassador to France. With the country on the verge of major political and social upheaval, Lafayette was named commander of the Paris National Guard. But when violence broke out in 1789, Lafayette’s obligation to protect the royal family left him in a vulnerable position to the factions vying for power. So he fled France in 1792.

Upon his departure from France Lafayette was captured at Olmütz by Austrian forces and imprisoned. He was later released by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1797. He finally returned to France in 1799, where he largely retired from public life. He settled at LaGrange, an estate near Paris nicknamed the Mount Vernon of France. In 1824, he made one final tour of America and was hailed as a hero.  Six years later, the aging statesman declined the dictatorship of France during the July Revolution, and Louis-Phillipe was crowned king.  He died four years later, May 20, 1834 at the age of seventy-six, following a battle with pneumonia.

Lafayette02     Lafayette06     Lafayette04     Lafayette03     Lafayette05
[Click on the thumbnails above to view the full size photos]

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Comments
  1. Great biographic information and very timely with the recent visit of L’Hermione. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lafayette was such an interesting man that there was a lot more information that I could have included but chose not to so that the blog post would not turn into a book. Just a few examples include: his return trips to the United States that turned into national celebrations; being given the country’s first honorary citizenship, and; his disagreements with George Washington and the early founding fathers on some issues, such as slavery. Even if you’re not a history buff, he is worth learning about.

      Liked by 1 person

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