Sunday, May 17, 2020

Episode 149 Lafayette Comes to America

In late July 1777, the Continental Congress was worried about the northern British Army that had just captured Fort Ticonderoga and was marching southward toward New York City.  The main Continental Army was still waiting for the larger British Army in New York City to make its move, most likely against Philadelphia.  At this same time, a nineteen year old boy arrived in Philadelphia, speaking almost no English.  He asked Congress to commission him as a major general in the Continental Army.

I mentioned a few weeks ago that the Marquis de Lafayette had received a commission at the end of July.  But how this came to pass deserves a bit more background.  Lafayette is probably one of the most recognized names from the Revolution.  How a teenager not only gained such a high military command command and became one of the most famous men of the era needs some explanation.

Lafayette’s Early Years

Lafayette obtained his position in French society in the traditional way.  He was born into an important family with great wealth and power.  His family had served the King since at least the twelfth century.  One of his ancestors had been Marshall of France during the Hundred Years War and had served under Joan of Arc.

His father had served as a colonel, killed in 1759 at the Battle of Minden when his son was less than years old. Fun fact, the British general in charge of the artillery that killed his father, was General William Phillips, who was now marching south in New York with General Burgoyne.  In 1781, Philips would die in Virginia while being bombarded by artillery under the command of General Lafayette.

Marquis de Lafayette
(from Wikimedia)
Lafayette’s mother was from an even wealthier noble family and had come with a dowry including extensive land holdings in Brittany.  When her husband was killed, the family title and fortune fell to their only child.

The boy was raised with the best private education French nobility could provide.  He was also raised with stories of French military glory.  In 1770 his great-grandfather, uncle, and mother all died, leaving Lafayette with an even greater fortune.  His estate produced the inflation-adjusted equivalent of well over $1 million per year to support him.  The boy was still only twelve years old.

His great-grandfather, before his death, had arranged for Lafayette to receive a lieutenant’s commission in the Black Musketeers, the unit responsible for the King’s security.  He had also arranged for Lafayette to marry into another noble family with a direct blood relationship to King Louis.  The marriage did not take place until 1774 when the couple were a little older.  By the time of their marriage Lafayette was sixteen and his bride Adrienne was fourteen.  Adrienne’s father, the Duc d’Ayen, was not only a wealthy noble, but also a general in the French army.  As a wedding gift, his new father-in-law promised Lafayette command of one of his cavalry companies when the boy turned eighteen.

Lafayette lived with his wife’s family and became close to the royal family, particularly Queen Marie Antoinette.  Although he had been raised in wealth and luxury, Lafayette was not comfortable with court life.  He wanted to fulfill his dreams of becoming a military officer.

Marie Adrienne Francoise
de Noailles (from Wikimedia)
The thought of fighting for the colonies came from a very unlikely source.  In 1775 King George III’s younger brother, the Duke of Gloucester, had visited France.  The Duke and his wife attended a dinner hosted by the Comte de Broglie, who was at the time Lafayette’s commander.  Captain Lafayette attended the dinner where the Duke criticized his brother’s handling of the American colonies and numerous other things.  The two brothers had been at odds for years.  The King had disapproved of the Duke’s marriage years earlier.

At the time of the dinner, word had only recently reached Europe about the battles of Lexington and Concord.  Both the Duke and de Broglie were also masons, and spent much of the evening talking about masonic notions of equality and the rights of man.  Lafayette listened attentively and said later that it was that night he decided to fight for the American cause.

In June 1776, as part of a general military restructuring to save money, Lafayette was moved to the reserves, meaning he had no military duties.  His career in the French army was going nowhere.  This only increased his desire to go fight in America.  Because of his age, he could not leave without the permission of his father-in-law, who refused to let him go.  Adrienne had just given birth to the couple’s first child.  The Duc d’Ayen did not want to see the boy get himself killed on some military adventure before the family even got started.  Lafayette also sought the support of his old commander the Comte de Broglie, who also counseled against going to America.

Going to America

None of this deterred him though.  Lafayette received an audience with Silas Deane and somehow convinced him to grant a commission as a major general in the Continental Army.  At this time, Lafayette was only 19 years old, and held a commission as only a captain in the French Army.  That commission was only the result of his family’s wealth and social status, not any actual military experience.

Lafayette, Dekalb & Deane in Paris
(From Wikimedia)
Even so, Lafayette convinced Deane to grant him a commission.  Part of it was his willingness to serve with no pay.  Lafayette also convinced Deane that his service would increase French public support for the American cause. Lafayette would encourage the French government to become more involved in the American cause.  Deane also granted General Johann de Kalb a commision as a major general as well.

By the end of 1776, news of the British capture of New York had reached France.  Officials feared that the rebellion might be crushed and that sending French officers to their aid might only start another war with Britain.  Besides, Lafayette’s wife was now pregnant with their second child.  His father in law still had no interest in letting Lafayette abandon his new family.

Instead, the Duc d’Ayen convinced Lafayette to go to London and visit the Duc’s brother who was at the time the French Ambassador to Britain.  Lafayette complied, gaining an introduction to British society.  On his three week trip, he met General Henry Clinton, Lord George Germain, and even had an introduction to King George III.

None of this changed his mind though.  When he returned to France, he did not go home.  Instead, he planned to use the ship he had purchased, to sail to America with General de Kalb and a number of other French officers ready to join the Continentals.

At Bordeaux, the men boarded the ship, now named Victoire.  In signing papers with French emigration officials, he used his name, Gilbert du Mortier, thinking the use of his better-known title Marquis de Lafayette would set off alarms.  He did send a note to his wife letting her know what he was doing.  Rather than sail to America though, the ship first docked at a port in Spain.  By this time Lafayette’s wife had received his note and alerted her father.  The Duc d’Ayen went straight to the King who issued orders that all French officers, especially Lafayette, should not go to America and should return to France if they had already left.

le comte de Broglie
(from Wikimedia)
Lafayette received word of these orders while in Spain and returned to Bordeaux.  Lafayette wanted to go to Paris, but was instructed to go to Marseilles where his in-laws were staying at the moment.  Lafayette planned to obey, until he got a message from his old Commander, the Comte de Broglie.

De Broglie thought he might convince the Continental Congress to give him full command of the Continental Army.  Remember, I discussed back in Episode 115 that the French thought that the Americans, without any trained officers, might be willing to hand over command of the Continental Army to French officers.  The American colonies would come under France’s control and would possibly end up becoming French colonies.

The Comte de Broglie wanted de Kalb, who was on Lafayette’s ship, to go to America and see if this was a possibility.  De Kalb had instructions to negotiate such an agreement with the Continental Congress.  Lafayette was not a part of these negotiations.  He was just the rich kid who was providing the ship to take them to America.  In fact, it was de Broglie’s aide, de Kalb, who had introduced Lafayette to Deane and helped him to get his commission, obtaining a major general’s commission for himself at the same time.  Also joining the ship was the Viscount de Maury, who had also been promised a commission as major general.

Broglie sent an aide to Bordeaux to tell Lafayette that the government actually did want him to go to America, but had to forbid it publicly in order to avoid war with Britain.  It is not clear that this was true.  In fact, there were many within the government who held differing views on how France should get involved, and no one was certain about the true feelings of the King or Foreign Minister Vergennes.

Arrival in America

With Broglie’s assurance, Lafayette pretended to depart for Marseilles, then set sail for America on April 20, 1777.  During the voyage, Lafayette got to know the other officers planning to fight in America.  He realized that not all of them had particularly ideological motives.  De Maury in particular seemed relatively hostile to the idea of a republic that would be independent of Europe.  In one diatribe to his fellow passengers, de Maury summed up his view of the Americans:
Fanaticism, insatiable greed, and poverty, these are unfortunately, the three causes that incessantly drive to these shores masses of immigrants, who come to slay the natives and destroy in a wasteful spirit, forests as old as the world itself; they drench a still virgin soil with the blood of the aborigines and fertilize it with thousands of corpses scattered over fields seized by force.  In this picture, which is only too true, do you see fewer horrors than could be shown in the continent which we are leaving.
French ships ordinarily did not sail straight to America.  Doing so risked seizure by the British Navy.  Instead, they would travel to a French colony in the West Indies, then make a quick dash to the continent from there.  Lafayette, however, was having none of that.  He wanted to sail directly to America. He was in a hurry to arrive.  Besides stopping at a French colony would give only another opportunity for government officials to stop them and send them home.  The ship Victoire had no significant cannons as defense.  If they had been stopped, they would have no chance of defending themselves.

Memorial in Bordeaux where Lafayette left for America
(from Wikimedia)
The gamble paid off, as the ship made it across the Atlantic without incident. After two months, the party landed in South Carolina in mid-June, 1777.  The crew first encountered a group of slaves working to collect oysters along the shore.  These men guided them to the nearest plantation owned by Major Benjamin Huger.

The landing party was met with barking dogs and guns pointed at them.  Huger thought they were a British landing party.  Once they convinced him of who they were, he invited them into his home and welcomed them.  After obtaining local pilots, the ship then made its way to Charleston.  Lafayette, de Kalb, and a few other officers opted to travel overland, some on horseback, some walking.

The group reached Charleston on June 17.  When the group first arrived after their march, they probably looked rather scruffy.  Many other French would-be officers had passed through Charleston.  Many had been failures, without any real military abilities, looking for opportunities in America.  At first, Charleston gave this group the cold shoulder.  But after their ship arrived the following day, they realized these were men of substance who could be a real help to the cause.  The group enjoyed eight days of feasts and celebrations with the town’s elite.

There, Lafayette donated most of the supplies he had brought with him to the South Carolina militia.  The French officers  met with John Rutledge, then President of South Carolina.  They also inspected the defenses with General William Moultrie.  Both men, like Lafayette, were also freemasons, which helped to create an instant bond between the men.

After that, the French officers made their way overland to Philadelphia, a trip taking many more weeks.  Along the way, they stopped in North Carolina to meet with governor Richard Caswell.


On July 27, the group finished its 650 mile journey to Philadelphia.  They arrived on a Sunday, when Congress was not in session.  Still eager to make contact, they sought out President John Hancock at his home.  Hancock blew off the group and said they should seek out Robert Morris, who headed the committee that dealt with French relations.

Johann de Kalb
(from Wikimedia)
On Monday morning, the French delegation put on their dress uniforms and presented their credentials to Congress.  Their welcome was less than expected.  The three would-be major generals were, in Lafayette’s words, “treated like dogs.”  They were left standing out in the street in front of Independence Hall for some time.  Eventually two delegates, Robert Morris and James Lovell (who spoke French) came to speak with them outside.  Morris informed them that Deane had exceeded his authority in offering them commissions as major generals.  Congress was interested in getting a few officers with engineering experience, but that was it. They gave the group, who had expected to be greeted as heroes, a nice thanks but no thanks and asked to leave.

Congress was simply in no mood for more French officers at this time.  The two french officers who had already received commissions as generals in the Continental Army, de Borre and Fermoy had both proven disasters.  You may recall General Fermoy had run away from the enemy at first site near Trenton, leaving his regiment on its own, and had just recently set his cabin on fire at Mount Independence, thus revealing the secret retreat from Fort Ticonderoga.

A few months before Lafayette had arrived in Philadelphia, Charles Tronson du Coudray had come with another commission from Dean promising to make him a major general as well.  Courdray had proven arrogant and demanding, insisting that he be made commander of artillery, along with an expensive salary.  American generals, who by this time had combat experience and were leading their armies, were offended by the idea that a bunch of Frenchmen could be given command over them.  Several of them, including generals Knox, Sullivan, and Greene, threatened to resign.

Washington and Lafayette Meet (from Wikimedia)
In late July, Congress was still in negotiations with du Coudray over what position he could get.  They were not interested in his leadership, but also did not want to offend France by telling him to pound sand.  In the middle of all this, these three additional would-be major generals showed up on Congress’ doorstep demanding their promised commissions as well.  So this background explains the cold shoulder that Lafayette and his companions received.  Congress was in no mood to have its army led by a bunch of French adventurers.

Lafayette was not ready to take no for an answer.  He met with several delegates, including Robert Morris who was focused on building an alliance with France. Lafayette convinced them of his ardor for the cause, but also made clear he would serve as a volunteer, without pay.  Not only that, he would pay the salaries of the French officers who served as his aides.  It also helped that Benjamin Franklin had sent a letter to Congress saying that given Lafayette’s position and his family’s importance in France, this commission was important to America’s relationship with France.  On July 31, three days after his arrival in Philadelphia, Congress changed its tune and agreed to assign the new volunteer major general to Washington’s staff.

A few days later, General Washington came to brief Congress on the British army, then approaching Philadelphia.  Washington and Lafayette met at a dinner and hit it off immediately.  The commander invited new officer to inspect the city defenses that evening, which thrilled Lafayette.  The two men walked and talked that evening.  One could almost hear them say I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Cont. Maj. Gen. Lafayette
(from Wikimedia)
For the other would-be generals, the beginning was not quite so smooth.  A few weeks after Lafayette’s appointment, Congress gave du Coudray a commission as Inspector General, which gave him his generalship, but left him outside the immediate command structure.  In doing so, Congress merely put off what was going to be a major confrontation for control of the Army’s artillery.  Du Coudray conveniently ended this potential confrontation a month later when his horse fell into a river and he drowned.

General de Kalb was offended not only by the rejection, but also the fact that Congress honored Lafayette’s commission despite the fact that Lafayette was a far lower ranking and less experienced officer.  De Kalb advised Lafayette to take his commission, even though the young man offered to resign out of protest for Congress denying a commission to de Kalb.  After his rejection, de Kalb simply asked that Congress pay for his return trip to France.

Over the next couple of months, Congress kept de Kalb cooling his heels.  During that time, de Kalb proved to be not quite so arrogant and argumentative as du Coudray.  Several members began to warm up to the idea of granting him a commission.  In mid-September, about the time du Coudray drowned and the British were moving in on Philadelphia, Congress offered a commission as major general to de Kalb. At that point, de Kalb put several conditions on his acceptance.  One being that he be given retroactive seniority to be ahead of Lafayette.  Another was an appointment of his aide as a major, and finally that his wife would receive a pension if he died during the war.  Finally, Congress accepted his terms.  By October, de Kalb joined Washington’s army in the field shortly before the army retreated to Valley Forge.

The Viscount de Mauroy never received his promised commission.  He returned to France, embittered by his experience and had nothing good to say about the Continental Congress or America generally.

Next week: General Howe begins his campaign to take Philadelphia.

- - -

Next Episode 150 Howe Leaves New York

Previous Episode 148 Murder of Jane McCrea

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Further Reading 


Continental Generals by Date of Commission:

Kite, Elizabeth S. “LaFayette and his Companions on the Victoire” Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia, vol. 45, no. 1, 1934, pp. 1–32. JSTOR,

Kite, Elizabeth S. “LaFayette and his Companions on the Victoire(Continued).” Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia, vol. 45, no. 2, 1934, pp. 144–178. JSTOR,

Kite, Elizabeth S. “LaFayette and his Companions on the Victoire (Continued).” Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia, vol. 45, no. 3, 1934, pp. 212–245. JSTOR,

Kite, Elizabeth S. “LaFayette and his Companions on the Victoire (Continued)” Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia, vol. 45, no. 4, 1934, pp. 275–311. JSTOR,

Letter, John Adams to Abigail Adams, August 24, 1777, Founders Online, National Archives,

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Adams, John Quincy Life of General Lafayette, Napis & Cornish 1847.

Crow, Martha Foote Lafayette, The MacMillan Company, 1918.

Headley, P. C. The Life of the General Lafayette, Marquis of France, General in the United States Army, etc., C. M. Saxton, 1860.

Howe, Archibald Murray Colonel John Brown, of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, the Brave Accuser of Benedict Arnold, Geo. H. Ellis Co. 1908.

Kapp, Friedrich The Life of John Kalb, Major-General in the Revolutionary Army, H. Holt & Co. 1884.

Lowery, Robert A Complete History of the Marquis de Lafayette, self-published, 1826.

Smith, John Spear Memoir of the Baron de Kalb, Maryland Historical Society, 1858.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Beakes, John De Kalb: One of the Revolutionary War's Bravest Generals,  Heritage Books, 2019

Leepson, Marc Lafayette, Lessons in Leadership from the Idealist General, Palgrave-MacMillion, 2011.

Aurichio, Laura The Marquis: Lafayette Reconsidered, Knopf, 2014 (book recommendation of the week).

Unger, Harlow Giles Lafayette, Wiley, 2002.

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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