An American Nobleman

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Throughout time, courageous men and women have risked all that is dear to them for a higher purpose.  One such man was a young French noble during the American Revolution.  His actions in battle transformed him into one of the most beloved American commanders.  He had abandoned his life as an aristocrat to cast his lot with the new United States and the “glorious cause” of liberty.  In doing so, he risked his family’s name, his wealth and his very life. Yet, he is remembered today as one of the country’s most ardent defenders.  His name was the Marquis de Lafayette.  To Americans, he has always been simply “Lafayette.” This is the story of how one moment united him forever with the American cause he risked everything to serve.

Stretching back to the Middle Ages, the Marquis de Lafayette’s family line was filled with French military heroes, including his father who died in battle when Lafayette was only two years old. The deaths of his mother and great-grandfather when he was twelve made him both an orphan and one of France’s wealthiest aristocrats.  Despite his grand position, Lafayette felt ill at ease in court settings.  He soon left for the French town of Metz to complete his military training.  In Metz, the seventeen-year-old Marquis first heard about America’s fight for freedom. As a Freemason, he embraced a belief in the rights of life, liberty and property and determined to join the Americans’ struggle. After conferring with the American representative to France, he departed for America without permission from his own government, which was not yet involved in the war. Landing on American soil, the Marquis vowed that for America he would be victorious or die in the effort. He soon proved his vow was more than mere words.

Arriving in the American capitol of Philadelphia, he expressed his desire to serve the cause of liberty to the Continental Congress.  In response, Congress appointed him a major general.  To quiet fears about his intentions, he told George Washington that he had “come here to learn, not to teach.”  He was soon a part of American efforts to halt the British advance on Philadelphia. On September 11, 1777, the nineteen-year-old Marquis stood with the Americans along the banks of Brandywine Creek. It would be his first taste of combat and would forever link his name with that of the United States of America. Quickly, the fight exploded.

The battle raged as the American army focused its attention on the British center.  Seizing an opportunity, British general Lord Charles Cornwallis led a flanking attack against the exposed American right. Word of the attack spread to Lafayette and General Washington.  Turning to the commanding general, the young Marquis asked if he could help bolster the collapsing flank.  Washington quickly agreed and Lafayette galloped toward the sound of battle.  Minutes later, he reached the scene and took in the confusion. He saw that the British had already crossed the creek and were advancing on the American lines. Astride his horse, he watched as several American officers ordered their men to hurriedly form defensive lines to prevent any further advance.  Wasting no time, British soldiers fired their cannons and muskets as they marched across a broad field toward the American lines.

Lafayette immediately raced to join the other American commanders directing the fight.  Reaching the group of officers, he helped take command of 800 American soldiers.  He directed their fire and proudly stood with them as they faced the onslaught of the Redcoats. As Lafayette was occupied in his efforts, the might of the British attack started collapsing both flanks. With no support on either side, the center of the line also began to give way under the increasing pressure. The Americans began to flee. The battle was turning.   

Lafayette stared in shock as the American soldiers fled in terror and the British followed. It was the moment of truth for the young general.  The Marquis raced to block the flight of the soldiers, but they continued to pour past him in search of safety.  In desperation, he jumped from his horse and began grabbing and pushing individual soldiers into line. At 6 feet, 1 inch tall, he towered over many of them.  All the time he was shouting that they had to stay and hold the enemy back.  He was caught up in the frenzy of battle. The stunned soldiers looked at him. Here was a major general acting like a common company officer or soldier.  They immediately saw in him a general not afraid of standing beside them. Soldiers took heart and rallied around him as he stood firm against the British advance.  Other commanders and soldiers stood as support behind him. The enemy closed to within twenty yards, and the young general finally had to order the men to withdraw to a nearby woodlot.  They had successfully stopped the impending rout of the American army.

As Lafayette stood looking around at the dead and wounded about him, one officer noticed blood leaking from his boot. A British musket ball had torn through the calf of his left leg.  He had shed his blood on American soil in defense of the American cause. Lafayette was soon forced to join the rest of the army as it withdrew from the battle, but blood loss weakened him. The injury had to be bandaged even though the British were close behind.  In stopping, Lafayette was almost captured by the enemy but managed to escape. Despite the wrenching pain he helped restore calm among the panicked soldiers.  Washington soon arrived and ordered his surgeon to tend to him. He even told the surgeon to “treat him as if he were my son.”  It was the beginning of a lifelong father-son relationship.

News of Lafayette’s actions soon spread throughout the country, and the Americans hailed him as a national hero. He quite possibly saved the American right flank, and the army, from destruction.  He was now a valued member of Washington’s command. The young general continued to distinguish himself alongside Washington through the triumphs and tragedies of the Revolution, and he endeared himself to all of America by his selfless and courageous service during the long struggle.  After six more years, the war ended and Britain finally recognized American independence.  It was a bittersweet parting when Lafayette returned to France, but America always remained in his thoughts.

Nearly fifty years later, he returned to the land that he loved in a grand triumphal tour. Among the stops he made on that return trip was a visit to the old battlefield of Brandywine. It was the place where he had first shown himself a defender of America.  He was the pride of the country.  One of his final acts was to scoop some dirt from Bunker Hill, an early Revolutionary battle site, to take back to France with him.  Less than ten years later, the Marquis de Lafayette died and his son, who he had named in honor of George Washington, poured the dirt on his father’s coffin so the old hero would forever be buried under American soil. When word reached America of his death, the House of Representatives and the Senate chambers were draped in black out of respect.  The nation followed suit and mourned the loss of the brave Marquis.  

During that last trip to America, the former American general made a toast in which he said that the union of the states would one day save the world, and he was right. Nearly eighty-five years after Lafayette died, American troops landed in Europe to help save France in World War I. Arriving in Paris, American commander “Black Jack” Pershing sent his aide, Colonel Charles E. Stanton, to Lafayette’s grave.  There Stanton planted an American flag over the Marquis’ grave and said, “Lafayette, we are here.” It would not be the only tribute, however.  Today towns all over America proudly bear his name.  In 2002, by an act of Congress, Lafayette was made an honorary citizen of the United States. The French nobleman who had risked all he had to serve America and the cause of freedom, finally and fittingly became “Our Marquis.” 

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