Michel Louis Christophe Roch Gilbert Paulette du Mortier, Marquis de Lafayette descended from an old and honorable noble family. His ancestors fought in the Crusades, alongside Joan of Arc, and in the Seven Years War. When France entered the American Revolution, Lafayette quickly departed for the United States to fight against Britain. Lafayette fought with distinction and earned the Patriots’ respect. The Frenchman shed blood for the American cause, served as a surrogate son for General Washington, and became an American hero.
Lafayette wanted to fight the British. He arranged a commission in the American army in December 1776. France had not yet entered the war, but the nobleman wanted in the action. He chartered his own ship and set sail for America dressed as a woman. The captain planned to stop in the West Indies to deliver his cargo, but Lafayette worried that he might be discovered by British agents and bought the cargo. They landed in South Carolina in June.
The 19-year-old Frenchman traveled from South Carolina to Philadelphia to report to the Continental Congress and claim his commission. The congress rebuffed the young man, but relented when Lafayette offered to serve without pay. However, he was not immediately assigned a unit and considered returning to France. Benjamin Franklin intervened on his behalf and recommended the youth to George Washington. The general accepted Lafayette as his aide-de-camp.
Washington grew to love his aide-de-camp as a son. Their relationship lasted throughout the war and beyond. When Lafayette landed in a Prussian prison years later, President Washington tried to intervene to secure his release. Lafayette’s bravery helped endear him to the general. In fact, he was wounded in his first engagement.
Lafayette became an American hero at Brandywine on September 11, 1777. The British outmaneuvered the American army and wounded the Frenchman. He attempted to rally the troops facing a Hessian onslaught when he was hit in the leg. The noble ignored the leg wound and continued to rally the men, which helped create an orderly retreat as opposed to a panic. After the battle, Washington recommended Lafayette for a command and cited him for bravery.
The now 20-year-old returned to action in November. He led a group of 300 against a large Hessian force at Gloucester, New Jersey. During the winter, General Horatio Gates assigned him the task of invading Canada. During this time, Lafayette heard rumors of a possible coup against Washington. He quickly alerted his patron and the Conway Cabal collapsed. Meanwhile, Lafayette realized the Canadian invasion in midwinter was folly and reported his findings to congress.
Lafayette continued to perform well for the Americans throughout 1778. The British made the Frenchman one of their main targets, but failed to capture or kill the youth. He returned to France in 1779 to argue the American cause. France welcomed him as a hero, but the king still locked him up for disobeying orders and going to America without permission. He sailed back to the United States in March 1780. Before his departure, he named his newborn son George Washington Lafayette.
Lafayette’s son’s namesake appointed the Frenchman command of two brigades. The command experienced proved valuable to Washington and Lafayette. The Franco-American hero used that experience in three revolutions. He aided the American effort against Lord Cornwallis in the south. His work played a part in trapping Cornwallis at Yorktown.
Washington arrived at Yorktown hoping to end the affair on September 14, 1781. He found Lafayette entrenched on Malvern Hill. By this point, the French navy defeated the British eliminating Cornwallis’ escape route. The British could attempt to break out or surrender. The Americans methodically closed the noose around Cornwallis’ neck over three weeks. On October 14, Lafayette took redoubt 9 was Alexander Hamilton conquered redoubt 10. These actions doomed the British. Cornwallis attempted a perfunctory strike, which failed. He surrendered on October 19, 1781.
Lafayette returned to France a hero. He lobbied his government on America’s behalf for a trade agreement and counseled Washington to emancipate his slaves. The French hero returned to America in 1784 and visited all the states except Georgia. Congress declared Lafayette and his descendants “natural born citizens of the United States.” His experiences in the United States positioned him well for the French Revolution, which began moderately before the radicals assumed control.
The Marquis de Lafayette traveled to America hoping to experience excitement and further the cause of human liberty. He succeeded beyond his wildest expectations. The Americans loved the Frenchman, who shed blood for their cause. His efforts saved the military from a total route at Brandywine. Later, he aided General Nathaniel Greene’s southern strategy, which led to Yorktown and British surrender. Lafayette became an American and his heart remained on two continents.