Sites of Lafayette's German Captivity, 1792-97

By Professor Paul Spalding, Illinois College, assisted by Almut and Eckhart Spalding

Cornell Library thanks Professor Spalding for allowing us to make his research and his collection available on this site. All images are from the personal collection of Professor Paul Spalding.

Note: please click on numbered footnotes to view accompanying images.


At the beginning of August 1792, Lafayette commanded the French Northern Army with headquarters at Sedan. He had a critical task: to defend France from imminent invasion. The “old regimes” of Prussia and Austria, with some French emigrant support, were determined to crush the new constitutional order that Lafayette had done so much to establish. Large forces of this counter-revolutionary Coalition had drawn up along the northern and eastern borders of France. From the other side of the political spectrum, inside France, radical Jacobins also sought to abolish the constitution. On 10 August, they carried out a coup that sparked months of populist terror. The new regime stripped Lafayette of command and recalled him to Paris, where he faced certain execution. Early on 19 August, Lafayette fled Sedan with much of his staff and crossed the frontier. Among the several officers were three other former deputies of the French National Assembly that had created the constitution: César de Latour-Maubourg, Jean Bureaux de Pusy, and Alexandre de Lameth. The party also included servants. The Frenchmen hoped to follow a route through the sovereign duchy of Bouillon and prince bishopric of Liège, skirting the surrounding Austrian Netherlands. Upon reaching the Dutch Republic, Lafayette planned to cross to England, help family members flee the Continent, and sail with them to his second homeland, the young United States.

Arrest at Rochefort

Late the night of departing France, in unseasonably cold, wet weather, Lafayette's party stumbled onto a unit of Flemish troops under Austrian command outside the village of Rochefort, in today's southern Belgium. The officer in charge gave assurances of free passage, and beckoned the Frenchmen to ride up the main street to accommodations in the Pelican Inn (Auberge du Pélican), today's Hôtel La Fayette [1], 87 rue Jacquet [2]. Soon, however, he reversed himself and announced the men's arrest. Today, south of the hotel, a partial tower of the former southern gate stands on a small traffic roundabout [3], whence a small “rue Lafayette” leads up into the eastern countryside. At the roundabout's center, below a chestnut tree, is a relief of Lafayette's bust above a French inscription noting that “on 19 August 1792, in violation of all rights, Lafayette, defender of liberty, was arrested by the Austrians at Rochefort.”


At first, the Austrians planned to hold Lafayette and all his company as prisoners of war, at the citadel of Antwerp (Anvers). A cavalry escort took the captives on a first leg of the journey north, to Namur, at the confluence of the Meuse and Sambre rivers. There the captives stayed at a former Franciscan monastery, the Hôtel d'Harscamp, today the retirement home Hospice d'Harscamp [4].

Tribunal at Luxembourg

When the captives reached Nivelles, new orders arrived. While most of Lafayette's staff officers continued to Antwerp, troops escorted Lafayette and the three other former French Assembly deputies to Luxembourg [5] for a special hearing before Coalition representatives. The tribunal deemed the men a dangerous ideological threat and ordered them held as “prisoners of state” until the old royal regime could return to power in France and its king render final judgment.

Four Prisons

Lafayette's captivity would last over five years, almost all of that time in four prisons of the Coalition monarchs: the Prussian citadels of Wesel, Magdeburg, and Neisse, and (for over three years of the captivity) the Austrian barracks-prison in Olmütz. Today the sites are in the countries of Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic. [6]


An armed escort brought the captives by carriage and boat down the Moselle and Rhine rivers to Wesel, near the Dutch border. The party crossed a moat under a black Prussian eagle [7], into a five-pointed star-shaped citadel where they spent the next three months (19 Sept.-22 Dec. 1792). Today only northern portions of the fort exist [8, 9], partly occupied by the Prussia Museum of North Rhine-Westphalia (Preussen-Museum Nordrhein-Westfalen). The surviving wing inside the fort, on the right when one faces it from the inner courtyard [10], contains a room whose history as a prison cell continued long after Lafayette's sojourn.


Approaching French troops and military needs for the space at Wesel's citadel brought the Prussians to transfer their state prisoners with servants eastward to the citadel at Magdeburg for the next year (4 January 1793-4 January 1794). This fort too was five-pointed, but elongated to conform to the island it occupied in the midst of the Elbe River. The damp, subterranean conditions of his cell reminded Lafayette of the hold of a prison ship he had once visited in New York harbor. Lafayette managed to lay plans for an escape with the help of sympathetic Prussian officers and supporters abroad, before tightening security forced the plan's abortion. The citadel no longer exists. Its ruins lie buried under a circular field bisected by a thoroughfare over the city's New River Bridge (Neue Strombrücke) [11]. Magdeburg was substantially destroyed in the Second World War. From the island where the citadel once stood, one now sees little more than a restored St. John's Church (Johanniskirche) [12] out of the cityscape that Lafayette once looked upon during escorted walks on a citadel bastion.


Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm II decided to withdraw from a losing war against the French Republic in the west in order to carve up a much weaker Kingdom of Poland in the east. He was also tired of paying the costs of holding the state prisoners. Instead of setting them free, he handed them back to the Austrian monarch, Emperor Franz II. As a prelude, the king moved Lafayette, Maubourg, and Pusy eastward to yet another five-pointed citadel, this one at Neisse in the province of Silesia, near the border of the emperor's Bohemian and Moravian territories (16 January-17 May 1794). Servants went along, including Lafayette's secretary Félix Pontonnier and valet Pierre Compte (otherwise spelled as “Comte,” and nicknamed “Chavaniac”), and valets of Maubourg and Pusy, Jules Grugeon and Nicolas Jandel (Jeandel). Lameth stayed behind in Magdeburg due to illness, and eventually won early release. Since the Second World War, Prussian Neisse has become the Polish city of Nysa. Today's overgrown but substantially intact ruins of Fort Prussia (in Polish, Fort Prusy) [13], the citadel that Lafayette and his companions occupied for four months in 1794, house storerooms for private businesses and a significant colony of bats [14, 15].


On 17 May 1794, a new Prussian escort brought Lafayette's party to the Moravian border town of Zuckmantel, today's Zlaté Hory. At the fine baroque post station there, still extant [16], the Prussians turned them over to Austrian troops.


Toward midnight on 18 May 1794, Lafayette, his companions, and escort crossed bridges over the Morava River and a tributary moat, to enter the fortress city that Austrian rulers knew as Olmütz and Czech subjects as Olomouc. Their carriage drove under St. Wenceslas Cathedral (Dóm svatého Václava) into a triangular St. Mary's Plaza (today's Republic Plaza, Námĕstí Republiky) [17], at the end of which rose the two-towered Church of the Virgin Mary of the Snows (Kostel Panny Marie Snĕžné). The carriage turned into the gate of the former Jesuit college abutting the church, which Joseph II had turned over for military use twenty years before [18]. The building had become a prison-barracks. Today it remains a military installation. Substantially intact as it appeared in Lafayette's time, it now houses the Administrative Archive of the Army of the Czech Republic (Správní archiv armády České republiky). A French- and Czech-language plate on the right side of the façade commemorates Lafayette's incarceration in the building [19].

Fortress Command at Olmütz

The headquarters-home of the fortress commandant, Lieutenant Field Marshal Baron Gabriel Anton von Splényi Miháldy, was on the city's main, Upper Plaza nearby, today's Horní nâmĕstí [20]. Here Splényi stored cash and other property impounded from Lafayette and his companions.

Lafayette's Rooms

According to orders from Vienna, each captive received a number by which he would be known instead of his name. Lafayette became “State Prisoner #2.” He received two connected rooms on the ground floor in the rear wing of the former Jesuit college [21]. Through tall windows covered by a double iron grate, he could look down onto a narrow terrace carrying a latrine gutter. To the right he could see the rear of a military hospital [22], and to the left, the backyard of some cathedral canons [23]. In the distance, past two guard towers and other fortifications, he could look off into wheat fields and, still further, the Oder/ Odra mountains. Today, though trees block the view ahead [24], one still sees much of the immediate architecture [25]that Lafayette came to know so well.

Golden Swan

Angelica Schuyler Church, sister-in-law of Alexander Hamilton, and her husband John Barker Church, member of Britains's Parliament, sponsored a young British Hanoverian physician named Justus Erich Bollmann to arrange a breakout. Traveling from London, Bollmann took a room in Olmütz at The Golden Swan inn (Zum goldenen Schwan) near the barracks-prison. Occupying the site today is a modern building [26] housing a pharmacy, the “Droxi Drogerie,” on Pekařská Street near the intersection with Opletalova.

Army Hospital

The army hospital, sharing the former Jesuit compound with the barracks-prison, has now become a superbly restored building of Palacký University Olomouc [27]. A front entrance opens onto today's small University (Univerzitní) Plaza. Bollmann ingratiated himself with the hospital supervisor, Staff Surgeon Karl Haberlein, while accompanying him on rounds in this building. Its newly restored hallways [28] closely resemble the prison hallways Lafayette passed through nearby. From the rear veranda [29] one can view the former prison wing [30]. Bollmann managed to convince Haberlein to smuggle into Lafayette, on a routine medical visit, some innocuous news about family and friends. In fact, written in lemon juice invisible until heated over a fire, were plans for escape.


Bollmann also engaged a young South Carolinian studying medicine in Vienna, Francis Kinloch Huger. In an astounding coincidence, Huger's family had been Lafayette's first hosts when he landed on American shores in 1777. The emperor and fortress command cooperated unintentionally in the escape plans. The emperor approved brief escorted carriage rides into the countryside for the health of State Prisoner #2. Olmütz fortress command provided only a weak escort on those excursions: a corporal and a private. At 3 p.m. on 8 November 1794, Lafayette and the corporal alighted from the carriage for a short walk through the wheatfields north of Olmütz [31], near the pilgrimage statue of an angel. A later version of the statue now marks the place [32, 33]. The corporal ordered the private and driver to proceed ahead and meet them at a rural inn. Moments later, Bollmann and Huger galloped up. After a scuffle in which the corporal almost bit off Lafayette's finger, the rescue agents managed to mount Lafayette on a horse and direct him to ride up the adjacent Imperial Highway to the village of Hof, now Dvorce. There a carriage with secret compartments was waiting to take him across the border.

Wrong Turn at Sternberg

Unfortunately, Lafayette took his rescuers' English-language cry “Go to Hof!” to mean simply “Go off!” As his helpers forgot to provide a map and still had to deal with a very recalcitrant corporal, Lafayette rode away alone. The rescuers assumed he would just follow the Imperial Highway north, which would eventually bring him to the village of Hof. In any case, they expected to catch up with him shortly. The first town on the road north was Sternberg (Ċ ternberk). Lafayette rode in through its southern gate and continued straight ahead, exiting at a northern gate [34]. Unfortunately, just before the northern city gate but still within town, the Imperial Highway made a sharp, 90-degree turn to the east, leading onto a narrow side street [35]. Appearing here deceptively unimportant, the Imperial Highway followed a steep incline up the hill and exited the town at the eastern city gate. Lafayette in his haste and with his rudimentary German missed the critical turn, even if the intersection may have been marked with a sign. It was a perfectly understandable mistake that can happen also to travelers today. For Lafayette, this mistake was fateful.


What Lafayette took when he continued straight north from Sternberg was a secondary branch that quickly began winding its way up into the hills to join a welter of other country roads. He had lost his way, in a place his rescuers had not anticipated. Around 6 p.m. at a meadow next to a creek used for tanning hides and furs (Bleiche in German, Bĕlidlo in Czech) [36] near Herzogsdorf (Knĕžpole), Lafayette encountered Joseph Dröxler (Drechsler), a tanner on his way home from work. When, in broken German, Lafayette asked for help to reach the border, Dröxler pretended readiness to help. He led Lafayette off the road onto a path that took them through a forest [37, 38] and across fields to the village of Braunseifen, today's Rýžovištĕ [39]. Leaving the suspicious stranger in a barn [40] as darkness fell, Dröxler reported him to the town bailiff Joseph Richter, who arranged an ambush.

Return to Prison

Lafayette spent a miserable night in an upper floor corner bedroom of Richter's home [41], still extant and marked on the front façade by a German-language inscription commemorating the event [42]. In the early hours of the morning, the district magistrate picked Lafayette up in a carriage surrounded by mounted men, to return him to Olmütz. Along the way, they made a brief stop at the home of the district magistrate under the castle towers of Eulenberg (Sovinec) [43]. As the magistrate's daughter bandaged Lafayette's finger, he remarked to her, “We tried, but it was all for nothing.”


After a year of isolation following the breakout, Lafayette had the surprise of his life. His cell door opened one morning to admit his wife Adrienne, herself released only a few months before from a series of Jacobin prisons, and their teenage daughters Anastasie and Virginie. These heroic Lafayette women had sailed from Dunkirk to Hamburg, then driven across Germany to Vienna. Adrienne Lafayette obtained an audience under a misleading name with the emperor who, taken aback upon discovering her true identity, gave in to pleas that she and her daughters share her husband's prison. They did so for two years, at the cost of permanent damage to Mme. Lafayette's health. Eventually French victories, particularly those of young Napoleon Bonaparte, forced the Austrians to sue for peace. Supporters of Lafayette and his companions saw to it that negotiations include the captives' release. The morning of 19 September 1797, sixty-one months after Lafayette's arrest, he and his party entered carriages that took them south to Brünn (Brno), then northwest past Prague to the border town of Peterswalde (Petrovice). Thereafter they passed through Dresden, Leipzig, and Braunschweig to the northern coast, their journey a public triumph. At the port of Hamburg, on 4 October, the emperor's local envoy handed Lafayette's party over to U.S. Consul John Parish. [44]


The Lafayettes did not sail to the U.S., in part due to the very poor health of Mme. Lafayette. For months they stayed at the Danish Holstein country estates of Wittmoldt, on a lake near Plön [45], and Lehmkuhlen, some ten kilometers further north [46]. Lafayette would remain in exile in Denmark and Holland until late 1799, when political conditions allowed him to slip back into France for a long but limited retirement from the public eye.