Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, the future Marquis de La Fayette and hero of the American Revolutionary War, the French Revolution of 1789 and the July Revolution of 1830, was born on 6 September 1757 in south central France.
Lafayette’s family were among the most illustrious soldiers in French history, and he was determined to be an exemplary member of his linage.
In 1775 the 18 year old Lafayette, already married with a child, fell in love with the ideals of the American Revolution. He demanded to be one of the officers France was sending to help the rebelling colonists (along with the weapons, ammunition, clothes, money, and sundry other supplies without which the revolution would have failed). When he found out that the rebels couldn’t pay to transport him, he simply bought a ship and headed for America.
Lafayette landed near Georgetown, South Carolina on 13 June 1777 and stayed with Major Benjamin Huger for two weeks before heading to the acting capital of the colonies, Philadelphia. Once there, he told the Continental Congress he would be happy to serve their cause without pay, and the 19 year old was promptly commissioned as a ‘honorary’ major general on 31 July 1777.
In August he met General George Washington, who liked the young man immediately.
Washington assigned Layfatte to his staff, where the Frenchman quickly impressed the general with his intellegance, fortitude, and bravery. Layfatte fought, and was wounded, in the battle at Brandywine on 11 September 1777, after which his honorary position in the Continental forces was transformed into a real command.
Layfatte rewarded Washington’s trust by proving he was worthy of it: on 24 Novermber 1777 Lafayette and the 300 men under his command defeated a numerically superior Hessian force in Gloucester. He stayed with Washington in Valley Forge during the hellish winter of 1777–78, and then demonstrated his worth as a military office yet again in the spring.
The marquis soon realized there was something even more important he could do for the rebelling Americans; get them funds and support from Europe. So, with permission, he sailed for France in January 1779.
He was in France for 18 months, during which time his wife gave birth to a son they christened Georges Washington Lafayette.
While in his home country, Lafayette “secured the promise of 6,000 soldiers to be sent to America, commanded by General Jean-Baptiste de Rochambeau.” Lafayette, who was now fluent in English, would return ahead of Rochambeau and the reinforcements so he could serve as a liaison between the French general and Washington.
When Lafaytte arrived in Boston on 27 April 1780 he was hailed by the dispirited colonists as “a knight in shining armor from the chivalric past, come to save the nation”. The rebels had been getting the crap kicked out of them by the better provisioned English troops, and were losing hope.
Lafayette was put in command of the Continental troops in Virginia in 1781, which he initially found vexing because he was afraid he’d miss out on any significant fighting. In reality, he found challenge enough in evading the attempts of Lord Cornwallis, the commander of the British forces in America, to capture him.
Then, on 4 July 1781, Lafayette’s prayers to Mars were answered when Cornwallis lead his troops out of Williamsburg. After fighting Lafayette in the Battle of Green Spring, Cornwallis retrenched his troops at Yorktown, the site of the last major land battle of the American Revolution:
Lafayette took up position on Malvern Hill, stationing artillery surrounding the British … Lafayette’s containment trapped the British when the French fleet arrived and won the Battle of the Virginia Capes, depriving Cornwallis of naval protection. On 14 September 1781, Washington’s forces joined Lafayette’s. On 28 September, with the French fleet blockading the British, the combined forces laid siege to Yorktown. On 14 October, Lafayette’s 400 men on the American right took Redoubt 9 after Alexander Hamilton’s forces had charged Redoubt 10 in hand-to-hand combat. These two redoubts were key to breaking the British defenses. After a failed British counter-attack, Cornwallis surrendered on 19 October 1781.
Once again, Lafayette sailed back to France to drum up support for the Americans. He was hailed as a war hero when he arrived in Paris in January of 1782, where he was promoted to maréchal de camp and made a Knight of the Order of Saint Louis. Lafayette used his popularity to talk the French government into allowing him to plan a combined French and Spanish invasion of the British West Indies, but willingly canceled the invasion in order to help negotiate the Treaty of Paris in 1783 when Great Britain indicated they were willing to call a truce and allow the colonies to be free.
Lafayette visited America again in 1784, where he was welcomed as though he were the incarnation of Liberty itself. Adoring crowds thronged him wherever he went, and nearly everything – cities, squares, ships, streets, towns, counties, and babies — was named Lafayette in his honor. Statues sprung up where he walked. Portraits spontaneously painted themselves.
Capitalizing on his popularity, Lafayette (a member the French abolitionist group Society of the Friends of the Blacks) gave speeches calling for the “liberty of all mankind” and pleading for the emancipation of slaves. He also urged the American states (which were then bound by the Articles of Confederation) to form a federal union. Alas, the Americans only took half his advise.
Lafayette would visit America once more before his death, to celebrate the new nation’s 50th birthday.
Lafayette arrived at New York on 15 August 1824, accompanied by his son Georges Washington and his secretary Auguste Levasseur. On arrival, Lafayette was greeted by a group of Revolutionary War veterans, who had fought alongside him many years before. New York erupted for four continuous days and nights of celebration. When he departed for what he thought would be a restful trip to Boston, he instead found the route lined by cheering citizens, with welcomes organized in every town along the way. According to Unger, “It was a mystical experience they would relate to their heirs through generations to come. Lafayette had materialized from a distant age, the last leader and hero at the nation’s defining moment. They knew they and the world would never see his kind again.”
The now-elderly war hero stayed in the US for more than a year and visited all 24 states. When he left, he took soil from Bunker Hill, to be placed over his grave in France, a small part of America that would remain with his body as it had been in his heart.
Lafayette died on 20 May 1834 at the ripe old age of 76. He was buried next to his wife in the Picpus Cemetery, where his son Georges Washington sprinkled the soil from Bunker Hill on his father’s grave.
The United States went into collective mourning. Lafayette was given the same memorial honors that had been given to George Washington, and both Houses of Congress “were draped in black bunting for thirty days, and members wore mourning badges”. Former President John Quincy Adams, who had been Lafayette’s friend, gave the deceased hero a three hour eulogy, declaring him to have been “high on the list of the pure and disinterested benefactors of mankind”.