Lafayette in America

March 3, 2011

Against the wishes, and orders, of Louis XVI, Lafayette quietly prepared for over a year to join the Continental Army, and, in the spring of 1777, he set sail for the colonies. Things went his way. He met the commander-in-chief, George Washington, and the two men took to each other immediately. In fact, a number of American generals liked Lafayette, a “most sweet tempered young gentleman,” as General Nathanael Greene described him.

So he was given a chance to prove himself, which he did consistently. And, in 1781, he set the stage for the victory that finally pointed the war to its end. With a small American force in Virginia–and with patience and good judgment, and some good luck, too–Lafayette caused General Charles Cornwallis, second in command of the British army in North America, to pull back his troops to the coast near Yorktown. The British soon found that they were in a bad location at the wrong time, trapped by a gathering of American and French forces. Alerted by Lafayette, Washington and Rochambeau quickly marched their troops from the north, and Admiral de Grasse moved in with his large French fleet. On October 19, 1781, Cornwallis surrendered his troops to Washington, marking the American victory at Yorktown. Lafayette was 24 years old.

Which brings me back to Lafayette’s spectacular visit to the U.S. in 1824-1825. On account of his youth during the Revolutionary War, he was the last surviving general in 1824, when the U.S. Congress and President Monroe invited him to visit the U.S. as a “guest of the nation.” Lafayette arrived in New York that August and soon realized that indeed the entire nation, that is, every one of the 24 states (remember, there had only been 13 states at the time of the Revolution), eagerly awaited a visit from General Lafayette. Although he was now 67 and was urged by his friends to be mindful of his health, he embarked on the whirlwind tour that this entailed. Traveling by carriage or boat, he made it to every state, while also arriving at particular places in time for special celebrations, such as anniversary day at Yorktown, on October 19, and Bunker Hill, on June 17.

Enthusiastic crowds greeted him everywhere he went. His reputation for military skill and leadership was important, of course. But it seems that people really loved Lafayette for his character, for his dignity and his kindness. The many places named in his honor, as Lafayette, or Fayette, or La Grange (the name of his home outside of Paris), reflect how strongly people felt. Even the space called President’s Park, behind the White House, became Lafayette Square in 1824.

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