Revolution, 1753-1783

Author: Lafayette  | Date: 1777-1784

Show Summary

Lafayette in the American Revolution

YOU ask me at what period I first experienced my ardent love of liberty and glory? I recollect no time of my life anterior to my enthusiasm for anecdotes of glorious deeds, and to my projects of travelling over the world to acquire fame. At eight years of age, my heart beat when I heard of an hyaena that had done some injury, and caused still more alarm, in our neighborhood, and the hope of meeting it was the object of all my walks. When I arrived at college, nothing ever interrupted my studies, except my ardent wish of studying without restraint. I never deserved to be chastised, but, in spite of my usual gentleness, it would have been dangerous to have attempted to do so; and I recollect with pleasure that, when I was to describe in rhetoric a perfect courser, I sacrificed the hope of obtaining a premium, and described the one who, on perceiving the whip, threw down his rider. Republican anecdotes always delighted me; and, when my new connections wished to obtain for me a place at court, I did not hesitate displeasing them to preserve my independence. I was in that frame of mind when I first learnt the troubles in America: they only be came thoroughly known in Europe in 1776, and the memorable declaration of the 4th of July reached France at the close of that same year.

After having crowned herself with laurels and enriched herself with conquests, after having become mistress of all seas, and after having insulted all nations, England had turned her pride against her own colonies. North America had long been displeasing to her: she wished to add new vexations to former injuries, and to destroy the most sacred privileges….

(1776.) When I first learnt the subject of this quarrel, my heart espoused warmly the cause of liberty, and I thought of nothing but of adding also the aid of my banner. Some circumstances, which it would be needless to relate, had taught me to expect only obstacles in this case from my own family: I depended, therefore, solely upon myself; and I ventured to adopt for a device on my arms these words,—"Cur non?"—that they might equally serve as an encouragement to myself, and as a reply to others. Silas Deane was then at Paris; but the ministers feared to receive him, and his voice was overpowered by the louder accents of Lord Stormont. He despatched privately to America some old arms, which were of little use, and some young officers, who did but little good, the whole directed by M. de Beaumarchais; and, when the English ambassador spoke to our court, it denied having sent any cargoes, ordered those that were preparing to be discharged, and dismissed from our ports all American privateers. While wishing to address myself in a direct manner to Mr. Deane, I became the friend of Kalb, a German in our employ, who was applying for service with the insurgents (the expression in use at that time), and who became my interpreter. He was the person sent by M. de Choiseul to examine the English colonies; and on his return he received some money, but never succeeded in obtaining an audience, so little did that minister in reality think of the revolution whose retrograde movements some persons have inscribed to him! When I presented to Mr. Deane my boyish face (for I was scarcely nineteen years of age), I spoke more of my ardor in the cause than of my experience; but I dwelt much upon the effect my departure would excite in France, and he signed our mutual agreement. . .

Preparations were making to send a vessel to America, when very bad tidings arrived from thence. New York, Long Island, White Plains, Fort Washington, and the Jerseys had seen the American forces successively destroyed by thirty-three thousand Englishmen or Germans. Three thousand Americans alone remained in arms, and these were closely pursued by General Howe. From that moment all the credit of the insurgents vanished: to obtain a vessel for them was impossible. The envoys themselves thought it right to express to me their own discouragement, and persuade me to abandon my project. I called upon Mr. Deane, and I thanked him for his frankness. "Until now, sir," said I, "you have only seen my ardor in your cause, and that may not prove at present wholly useless. I shall purchase a ship to carry out your officers. We must feel confidence in the future, and it is especially in the hour of danger that I wish to share your fortune." My project was received with approbation; but it was necessary afterwards to find money, and to purchase and arm a vessel secretly: all this was accomplished with the greatest despatch.

The period was, however, approaching, which had been long fixed, for my taking a journey to England. I could not refuse to go without risking the discovery of my secret, and by consenting to take this journey I knew I could better conceal my preparations for a greater one. This last measure was also thought most expedient by MM. Franklin and Deane, for the doctor himself was then in France; and, although I did not venture to go to his home, for fear of being seen, I corresponded with him through M. Carmichael, an American less generally known. I arrived in London with M. de Poix; and I first paid my respects to Bancroft, the American, and afterwards to his British Majesty….

After having suffered dreadfully in the Channel, and being reminded, as a consolation, how very short the voyage would be, I arrived at M. de Kalb’s house in Paris, concealed myself three days at Chaillot, saw a few of my friends and some Americans, and set out for Bordeaux, where I was for some time unexpectedly delayed. I took advantage of that delay to send to Paris, from whence the intelligence I received was by no means encouraging; but, as my messenger was followed on his road by one from the government, I lost not a moment in setting sail, and the orders of my sovereign were only able to overtake me at Pasage, a Spanish port, at which we stopped on our way. The letters from my own family were extremely violent, and those from the government were peremptory. I was forbidden to proceed to the American continent under the penalty of disobedience; I was enjoined to repair instantly to Marseilles, and await there further orders. A sufficient number of commentaries were not wanting upon the consequences of such an anathema, the laws of the state, and the power and displeasure of the government; but the grief of his wife, who was pregnant, and the thoughts of his family and friends, had far more effect upon M. de Lafayette. As his vessel could no longer be stopped, he returned to Bordeaux to enter into a justification of his own conduct; and, in a declaration to M. de Fumel, he took upon himself all the consequences of his present evasion. As the court did not deign to relax in its determination, he wrote to M. de Maurepas that that silence was a tacit consent, and his own departure took place soon after that joking despatch. After having set out on the road to Marseilles, he retraced his steps, and, disguised as a courier, he had almost escaped all danger, when, at Saint Jean de Luz, a young girl recognized him; but a sign from him silenced her, and her adroit fidelity turned away all suspicion. It was then that M. de Lafayette rejoined his ship, the 26th of April, 1777; and on that same day, after six months’ anxiety and labor, he set sail for the American continent.

(1777.) As soon as M. de Lafayette had recovered from the effects of sea-sickness, he studied the language and trade he was adopting. A heavy ship, two bad cannons, and some guns could not have escaped from the smallest privateer. In his present situation, he resolved rather to blow up the vessel than to surrender. He concerted measures to achieve this end with a brave Dutchman named Bedaulx, whose sole alternative, if taken, would have been the gibbet. The captain insisted upon stopping at the islands; but government orders would have been found there, and he followed a direct course, less from choice than from compulsion. At forty leagues from shore, they were met by a small vessel. The captain turned pale, but the crew were attached to M. de Lafayette, and the officers were numerous: they made a show of resistance. It turned out, fortunately, to be an American ship, whom they vainly endeavored to keep up with; but scarcely had the former lost sight of M. de Lafayette’s vessel, when it fell in with two English frigates,—and this is not the only time when the elements seemed bent on opposing M. de Lafayette, as if with the intention of saving him. After having encountered for seven weeks various perils and chances, he arrived at Georgetown, in Carolina. Ascending the river in a canoe, his foot touched at length the American soil; and he swore that he would conquer or perish in that cause. Landing at midnight at Major Huger’s house, he found a vessel sailing for France, which appeared only waiting for his letters. Several of the officers landed, others remained on board, and all hastened to proceed to Charlestown. .

To repair to the Congress of the United States, M. de Lafayette rode nearly nine hundred miles on horseback. Before reaching the capital of Pennsylvania, he was obliged to travel through the two Carolinas, Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware. While studying the language and customs of the inhabit ants, he observed also new productions of nature and new methods of cultivation. Vast forests and immense rivers combine to give to that country an appearance of youth and majesty. After a fatiguing journey of one month he beheld at length that Philadelphia, so well known in the present day, and whose future grandeur Penn appeared to designate when he laid the first stone of its foundation.

After having accomplished his noble manoeuvres at Trenton and Princeton, General Washington had remained in his camp at Middlebrook. The English, finding themselves frustrated in their first hopes, combined to make a decisive campaign. Burgoyne was already advancing with ten thousand men, preceded by his proclamation and his savages. Ticonderoga, a famous stand of arms, was abandoned by Saint-Clair. He drew upon himself much public odium by this deed, but he saved the only corps whom the militia could rally around. Whilst the generals were busied assembling that militia, the Congress recalled them, sent Gates in their place, and used all possible means to support him. At that same time the great English army, of about eighteen thousand men, had sailed from New York, and the two Howes were uniting their forces for a secret enterprise. Rhode Island was occupied by an hostile corps; and General Clinton, who had remained at New York, was there preparing for an expedition. To be able to withstand so many various blows, General Washington, leaving Putnam on the North river, crossed over the Delaware, and encamped, with eleven thousand men, within reach of Philadelphia.

It was under these circumstances that M. de Lafayette first arrived in America; but the moment, although important to the common cause, was peculiarly unfavorable to strangers. The Americans were displeased with the pretensions, and disgusted with the conduct, of many Frenchmen. The imprudent selections they had in some cases made, the extreme boldness of some foreign adventurers, the jealousy of the army, and strong national prejudices, all contributed to confound disinterested zeal with private ambition, and talents with quackery. Supported by the promises which had been given by Mr. Deane, a numerous band of foreigners besieged the Congress. Their chief was a clever but very imprudent man; and, although a good officer, his excessive vanity amounted almost to madness. With M. de Lafayette, Mr. Deane had sent out a fresh detachment; and every day such crowds arrived that the Congress had finally adopted the plan of not listening to any stranger. The coldness with which M. de Lafayette was received might have been taken as a dismissal; but, without appearing disconcerted by the manner in which the deputies addressed him, he entreated them to return to Congress, and read the following note:—

"After the sacrifices I have made, I have the right to exact two favors: one is, to serve at my own expense; the other is, to serve at first as volunteer."

This style, to which they were so little accustomed, awakened their attention: the despatches from the envoys were read over; and, in a very flattering resolution, the rank of major-general was granted to M. de Lafayette. . .

The two Howes having appeared before the capes of the Delaware, General Washington came to Philadelphia, and M. de Lafayette beheld for the first time that great man. Although he was surrounded by officers and citizens, it was impossible to mistake for a moment his majestic figure and deportment; nor was he less distinguished by the noble affability of his manner. M. de Lafayette accompanied him in his examination of the fortifications. Invited by the General to establish himself in his house, he looked upon it from that moment as his own: with this perfect ease and simplicity was formed the tie that united two friends, whose confidence and attachment were to be cemented by the strongest interests of humanity….

After having menaced the Delaware, the English fleet again disappeared, and during some days the Americans amused themselves by making jokes at its expense. These jokes, however, ceased when it reappeared in the Chesapeake; and, in order to approach it more closely during the disembarkation, the patriot army crossed through the town. Their heads covered with green branches, and marching to the sound of drums and fifes, these soldiers, in spite of their state of nudity, offered an agreeable spectacle to the eyes of all the citizens. General Washington was marching at their head, and M. de Lafayette was by his side. The army stationed itself upon the heights of Wilmington, and that of the enemy landed in the Elk River, at the bottom of Chesapeake bay. . .

After having advanced as far as Wilmington, the General had detached a thousand men under Maxwell, the most ancient brigadier in the army. At the first march of the English, he was beaten by their advance-guard near Christiana Bridge. During that time the army took but an indifferent station at Newport. They then removed a little south, waited two days for the enemy, and, at the moment when these were marching upon their right wing, a nocturnal council of war decided that the army was to proceed to the Brandywine. The stream bearing that name covered its front. The ford called Chad’s Ford, placed nearly in the center, was defended by batteries. It was in that hardly examined station that, in obedience to a letter from Congress, the Americans awaited the battle…. M. de Lafayette, as volunteer, had always accompanied the General. The left wing remaining in a state of tranquillity, and the right appearing fated to receive all the heavy blows, he obtained permission to join Sullivan. At his arrival, which seemed to inspirit the troops, he found that, the enemy having crossed the ford, the corps of Sullivan had scarcely had time to form itself on a line in front of a thinly wooded forest. A few moments after, Lord Cornwallis formed in the finest order. Advancing across the plain, his first line opened a brisk fire of musketry and artillery. The Americans returned the fire, and did much injury to the enemy; but, their right and left wings having given way, the generals and several officers joined the central division, in which were M. de Lafayette and Stirling, and of which eight hundred men were commanded in a most brilliant manner by Conway, an Irishman, in the service of France. By separating that division from its two wings, and advancing through an open plain, in which they lost many men, the enemy united all his fire upon the center: the confusion became extreme; and it was while M. de Lafayette was rallying the troops that a ball passed through his leg. At that moment all those remaining on the field gave way. M. de Lafayette was indebted to Gimat, his aide-de-camp, for the happiness of getting upon his horse. General Washington arrived from a distance with fresh troops. M. de Lafayette was preparing to join him, when loss of blood obliged him to stop and have his wound bandaged: he was even very near being taken. Fugitives, cannon, and baggage now crowded without order into the road leading to Chester. The General employed the remaining daylight in checking the enemy: some regiments behaved extremely well, but the disorder was complete. During that time the ford of Chad was forced, the cannon taken, and the Chester road became the common retreat of the whole army. In the midst of that dreadful confusion, and during the darkness of the night, it was impossible to recover; but at Chester, twelve miles from the field of battle, they met with a bridge which it was necessary to cross. M. de Lafayette occupied himself in arresting the fugitives. Some degree of order was re-established; the generals and the Commander-in-Chief arrived; and he had leisure to have his wound dressed.

It was thus, at twenty-six miles from Philadelphia, that the fate of that town was decided (11th September, 1777). The inhabitants had heard every cannon that was fired there. The two parties, assembled in two distinct bands in all the squares and public places, had awaited the event in silence. The last courier at length arrived, and the friends of liberty were thrown into consternation. The Americans had lost from 1,000 to 1,200 men. Howe’s army was composed of about 12,000 men. Their losses had been so considerable that their surgeons, and those in the country, were found insufficient; and they requested the American army to supply them with some for their prisoners. If the enemy had marched to Derby, the army would have been cut up and destroyed. They lost an all-important night; and this was perhaps their greatest fault during a war in which they committed so many errors. . .

In spite of the Declaration of Independence of the New States, everything there bore the appearance of a civil war. The names of Whig and Tory distinguished the republicans and royalists; the English army was still called the regular troops; the British sovereign was always designated by the name of the king. Provinces, towns, and families were divided by the violence of party spirit: brothers, officers in the two opposing armies, meeting by chance in their father’s house, have seized their arms to fight with each other. While in all the rancor of their pride, the English committed horrible acts of license and cruelty, while discipline dragged in her train those venal Germans who knew only how to kill, burn and pillage, in that same army were seen regiments of Americans, who, trampling under foot their brethren, assisted in enslaving their wasted country….


Related Resources

American Revolution

Download Options

Title: Revolution, 1753-1783

Select an option:

*Note: A download may not start for up to 60 seconds.

Email Options

Title: Revolution, 1753-1783

Select an option:

Email addres:

*Note: It may take up to 60 seconds for for the email to be generated.

Chicago: Lafayette, "Lafayette in the American Revolution," Revolution, 1753-1783 in America, Vol.3, Pp.222-234 Original Sources, accessed May 29, 2024,

MLA: Lafayette. "Lafayette in the American Revolution." Revolution, 1753-1783, in America, Vol.3, Pp.222-234, Original Sources. 29 May. 2024.

Harvard: Lafayette, 'Lafayette in the American Revolution' in Revolution, 1753-1783. cited in , America, Vol.3, Pp.222-234. Original Sources, retrieved 29 May 2024, from