From “Rebel” To Hero: The American Revolutionary War

In his Memoirs, Lafayette characterized himself as an autonomous rebel and a forerunner. In fact, he benefited from semi-official support, and at the time of his departure for America there were already about 250 French officers serving or aspiring to serve in the Continental Army. The War for Independence was then at its lowest ebb, and a divided Congress was tired of foreign adventurers incapable of speaking English and claiming high-ranks. Many of them received nothing, and left in disgust. Lafayette himself, whose origins and fortune made him difficult to dismiss, had to agree to serve without pay or command. With Washington’s endorsement, however, his situation rapidly improved.

Battle of Brandywine in Which the Rebels were Defeated September the 11th, 1777, by the Army under the Command of General Sr. William Howe, [1777].

In his first experience on the field, Lafayette rushed into the forefront of the action, was shot in the leg, and collapsed. Subsequently he became a kind of mascot of the defeated Continental Army – although Brandywine was sold as a victory in Europe. During his weeks of recovery, he bubbled with plans, including the opening of a second front in Canada, and another against British possessions in India.

Lafayette’s Military Plan of the Colonial Army Camp at Brandywine. September 1777.

Lafayette made this unofficial army map for his own personal use. Its deteriorated condition indicates that he may have kept this document with him on the battlefield, where it saw action.

Hand-Forged English Bayonet. Model “Brown Bess”. Excavated at the Site of the Battle of Saratoga. New York [September-October 1777].

Until World War I, the weapon most commonly used by infantry in close combat was the bayonet, which was especially useful in avoiding detection and preserving the key element of surprise. Bayonets were used heavily at the battle of Saratoga, a victory for the American rebels which renewed hope for an open alliance with France. The victory made General Gates the champion of those who wanted “action”, in opposition to Washington, whom many viewed as indecisive. Lafayette remained loyal to Washington, and was repaid with the command of a division of 2,800 Virginians and five cannons.

Lafayette. Letter to His Wife From Valley Forge. January 6, 1778.
“ What a date, my dearest love, and what a place! I think I was decidedly born under a weird star: it is in a camp in the middle of woods, that I find myself enclosed in the midst of winter... But for us French it has always been a point of honor not to pull out before the campaign is over... My presence is more necessary at this moment to the American cause than you can conceive... General Washington would be very saddened if I were to speak of quitting him... He finds in me a bosom friend, with whom he can share his heart, someone who will always tell him the truth.... He asked me, with the unanimous consent of the Congress, to accept a division... Believe me, just because I am staying right now does not mean I must fight the next campaign; myriads circumstances can actually decide me to leave...”
Anastasie de Lafayette. Letter to George Washington. June 18, 1784.

Lafayette’s six-year-old daughter, Anastasie, wrote this letter to George Washington on the occasion of her father’s third voyage to America in 1784.

The surprisingly deep father-son relationship that developed between Lafayette and George Washington extended to their families. In 1782 the Frenchman named his daughter Virginie (after Virginia, the colony in which Washington was born) and in 1799 he named his son George Washington. The families traded frequent gifts and letters. In August 1784, Lafayette offered his friend an apron of white satin, to be worn during Masonic ceremonies, hand-embroidered by his wife.

Bank Notes Owned by Lafayette, 1773-1778.
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Charles Gravier, Comte de Vergennes. Letter to Lafayette. September 16, 1779.
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Why, my dear Marquis, you blame yourself for confiding in me about your concerns! I can assure you that nobody cares more than I do... I guess you enjoy the recent developments in America... Let us hope that the Comte d’Estaing will not stop half-way... I don’t know yet what we can plan for the future with regards to America; unilateralism is no longer effective, we need to cooperate with our allies; it is clear enough that we must send troops to keep control of the situation, but that is not enough... I wish your American friends would push a bit harder. They made some noise in Stony Point; hopefully they are not content with it...

The American colonies shared with France a common enemy. But for awhile it was not clear whether France was willing to engage beyond the “arms-for-tobacco” deal initially imagined by Beaumarchais. Although France sent a fleet in 1778, Commander D’Estaing lost his first two battles in Newport, Rhode Island, and again in Savannah, Georgia. In this letter, the French foreign minister Charles Gravier, Comte de Vergennes (1719-1787) prematurely believes the city is almost captured. His sardonic remark about the stalemate at Stony Point (July 15-16) suggests anxiety and skepticism. Still, a new joint expedition with Spain was planned. As for Lafayette, back home since February, he was re-appointed to the French army as it prepared to invade England. The invasion never came about, and he returned to America by March-April 1780 on the Hermione.

English Defeat at Yorktown (1781). Engraving after Auguste Couder’s Painting for the Battle Gallery at Versailles (1836).

As General Cornwallis awaited reinforcements in fortified Yorktown, a new French fleet under the command of Admiral de Grasse placed Chesapeake Bay under naval blockade. Meanwhile, Lafayette maintained a brilliant holding action, and Washington and Rochambeau joined in an all-out assault which forced the English to surrender on October 17, 1781, bringing definitive victory to the American colonies. Lafayette took part in the negotiations which led to the Treaty of Paris that formally ended the American Revolutionary War in 1783.

Jean-Antoine Houdon. Life Mask of Lafayette, 1785-86.
Photograph courtesy of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art.
Gift of Arthur H. Dean and Mary Marden Dean.
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Two months after Yorktown, in December 1781, the Virginia legislature “resolved unanimously that a bust of the Marquis de La Fayette be... made, in Paris, of the best marble employed for such purpose,” and that an agent “employ a proper person in Paris to make the above bust.” Yet the project was forgotten until Lafayette mentioned it (deliberately?) to Washington, in September 1783. Thomas Jefferson and the American consul at Nantes selected Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828), an artist legendary for his meticulous technique, apparent in his portraits of Voltaire, Rousseau and Benjamin Franklin. Houdon measured his models from head to toe, and used “life masks” as models for his busts. Lafayette’s mask was taken in July 1785, before Houdon left for America, where he made Washington’s portrait using the same technique. The “Head of Lafayette” was finished in late 1786. It was presented by Jefferson to M. de Flesselles, the Intendant of Paris (whose own head would be paraded through Paris after he was decapitated on July 14, 1789), to be displayed in City Hall.

During the riots of August 10, 1792 which led to the overthrow of the monarchy, the bust was removed by revolutionaries along with those of Louis XVI and Bailly (both of whom would be guillotined in 1793). We know that Houdon saved it from destruction, but then it disappeared. Fortunately, Jefferson had acquired a copy for his “gallery of worthies” at Monticello (it is now in the Boston Athenaeum). As for the life mask, arguably one of the most “faithful” portraits of Lafayette in the absence of photographs, it was stored in Chavaniac until 1912.

Beginning with the American War of Independence, the myths of Washington and Lafayette inspired the manufacture and sale of all kinds of memorabilia, from works of art to drinking cups.

China Plates. “Lafayette Legacy” Collection. D’Arceau, Limoges, France, 1973.
On loan from a private collection.

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Lafayette’s Bedroom in Château de La Grange. Color Lithograph by Joseph Langlumé [between 1830 and 1840].

Lafayette’s bedroom at La Grange was turned into a sanctuary after his death in 1834. Above the bed was a version of Charles Willson Peale’s Portrait of Washington at Princeton (1779). On the commode was a bust of Washington by Houdon reportedly given to Lafayette by the U.S. Congress. Lafayette admitted that his concern for his “paternal friend” was “woman-like.” In January 2007, First Lady Laura Bush visited the property of the private Fondation de Chambrun, La Grange.

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