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Probably no other foreigner accomplished so much or sympathized so deeply with the cause of American Independence as did the Marquis de Lafayette. A French nobleman by birth, an heir to an immense estate at thirteen, married to one of the most beautiful ladies of the French Court, he chose a life of privation and hardship, to one of luxury and idleness. The love of liberty, inherent in his soul, made him a champion of the cause which seemed the last chance for liberty to obtain a foothold upon the earth. From the time the situation of the English American colonies was made known in France, in 1776, until they became a free and independent nation, he gave himself, heart and soul, to their cause. He served them both by his personal qualities and by his active efforts, as a French nobleman, and as an American soldier and general.

 

The qualities by which Lafayette most aided this country in its great conflict, were his love of liberty, enthusiasm, generosity and loyalty. His love of liberty first made him interested in the struggle of the American Colonies with their Mother Country, and this same love of liberty kept him enthused in the cause, and gave him the strength and courage to depart from his home, his friends and his country. Indeed it was the root of the other qualities by which he did us service.

When once his enthusiasm was aroused, nothing could diminish it. When he heard that the credit of the "insurgents" was so low that they couldn't possibly provide him a ship, he said in that case they needed him all the more, and he bought one with his own money. It was enthusiasm that led him to the front in the battle of Brandywine. It was enthusiasm that made him ride seventy miles and back, for the French fleet when it was needed so sorely. Of course, was not his motto "cur non?"

In all his dealings with this country, he showed his generosity and disinterest. What was it if not generosity, when at his own expense, he fitted out the ship that brought him and the other officers to this country? How many times during the war did he clothe his soldiers and supply their wants when the country couldn't? He proved his disinterested devotion to the satisfaction of Congress, when he offered to serve as a volunteer without pay and at his own expense. Gladly did he forego the comforts and pleasures to which education and rank entitled him, and bear with the soldiers every hardship and privation. When, chiefly through his influence, France agreed to send aid to America, and offered him a commission, he refused it so as not to arouse jealousy among other Frenchmen. Was not this unselfish love of liberty of the plainest type?

First Meeting of Washington and Lafayette by Courier and Ives 1876

His most striking characteristic, and I think the one by which he did us the most service, was his loyalty. It strengthened Washington to have one man upon whom he could rely so completely. When Gates was trying to stir up trouble against him and had appointed Lafayette to take charge of an invasion into Canada over which he had no control, he urged him to accept, because it would be safer with him than any one else. Lafayette did accept and he carried it out in such a way that Gates' scheme failed completely. At the Battle of Monmouth, too, when Washington sent Charles Lee to command over him, he showed his loyalty to Washington by submitting quietly and doing all he could to bring a victory out of a defeat. But what counted most, perhaps, was the faithfulness with which he carried out every order no matter how small and unimportant.

Lafayette also aided this country by his active efforts as a French nobleman. He induced France and Spain to join in preparing a fleet against the British, and it was not his fault that Spain kept putting it off until too late--he made the effort. He did succeed in raising the popularity of the Colonies in France, and in securing six thousand troops under Rochambeau, a fleet under d'Estaing and supplies for our soldiers. After the French forces arrived, he was very useful in keeping harmony between the armies, because of his influence over his own countrymen as well as Americans.

Lafayette was one of the most faithful soldiers as well as one of the best generals, this country had during the Revolutionary War. From the time he offered himself as a volunteer, until the war was over he served the country faithfully and well. At the very beginning of his career in this country, he became Washington's aide-de-camp, and as such learned a great deal of the latter's methods of fighting. In this capacity he was in the thick of the battle of Brandywine and did much, by his ready daring to encourage the soldiers. Before a wound, which he received in this battle, had entirely healed, and while he was out to reconnoitre, he came unexpectedly upon a large body of Hessians. He attacked boldly, and they, believing they were fighting all of Greene's men, retreated. Thus he was ever ready with his wit and daring.

Throughout the long dreary months when the army was wintering at Valley Forge, Lafayette suffered with the soldiers and helped alleviate the misery as best he could. It was during this winter that Gates and Conway made the conspiracy to put Washington out of power and to put Gates in his stead. To accomplish this, they wished to secure Lafayette's help, so they contrived to put him at the head of an expedition into Canada, with Conway second in command. Upon Washington's entreaty he accepted the commission, but under such conditions that they knew beforehand that their scheme was a failure. When he arrived at Albany, he saw that nothing was ready for an invasion of Canada, and that the affair could be nothing but a disappointment to America and Europe, and a humiliation to himself, nevertheless he made the most of his time by improving the forts and pacifying the Indians.

When the British left Philadelphia, Washington wished to follow and force a battle, and, when General Lee laid down his command, put Lafayette in charge. Hardly had the latter started, when Charles Lee asked for the command again. Washington could not recall Lafayette, yet he wished to pacify Lee, so he trusted to Lafayette's affection for himself, and sent Lee ahead with two extra divisions, when, as senior officer, he would take charge of the whole. Lafayette retired, sensibly, and did all he could to rally the battle that Lee was conducting so poorly. Finally he sent for Washington--the only man that could save the day.

The only real opportunity Lafayette had, of showing his generalship, was in the southern campaign of 1781, when he was placed in charge of a thousand light infantry and ordered to check the raids of the British. By a rapid march he forestalled Philips, who was threatening valuable stores at Richmond, and harassed him all the way to the Chickahominy River. Then, while he was separating the stores, Cornwallis, joined by Philips, took a stand between him and Albemarle where he had placed a large part of the stores. While Cornwallis was preparing to fight, Lafayette, keeping in mind the admonition of Washington not to endanger his troops, escaped to Albermarle by an unused road. After this Cornwallis gave up hopes of trapping "that boy," as he called Lafayette, and fortified himself at Yorktown.

When Lafayette had been given the defense of Virginia, his soldiers, hungry and destitute, were on the point of desertion. With ready tact he had supplied, from his own pocket, the direst necessities, and then had given them an opportunity of going north. Of course, when placed on their honor, they followed him with good will. Having received orders from Washington, not to let Cornwallis escape, he took his stand on Malvern Hill, a good strategic position, to await the coming of Washington and Rochambeau. When the siege was on and the only possible escape for Cornwallis was through North Carolina, this, Lafayette closed and his light infantry also captured one of the redoubts the British had fixed. The Siege of Yorktown ended his services for the independence of this country; the war was over and he was needed no more.

The results of Lafayette's efforts for the cause of American Independence can hardly be estimated. They say enthusiasm is contagious and it seemed so in his case, for his very enthusiasm for the cause won others to it and gave it greater popularity in Europe than it would otherwise have had. In this country he improved the condition of the soldiers by his ready generosity, and raised the spirit of the army by his own example of disinterested patriotism. He gave Washington what he most needed, at that time, a friend whom he could trust implicitly, and by his loyalty did his share towards keeping the army undivided. The forces he secured from France encouraged our soldiers and the supplies did a good deal towards satisfying their discontent. By inducing France to acknowledge the United States of America, he did us one of the greatest services possible. We were then one of the world's nations, and our credit went up accordingly. It isn't likely that the results of his efforts as an American soldier and general, can ever be fully ascertained. He did so many little things just when they seemed to be so needed, that it is impossible to sum up their results. All we can say is that he did his best for the cause of American Independence.--Report of Sons of the Revolution 1911-12.