The Marquis and Major-General

By: R∴W∴David Lavery, Grand Historian

Marquis de LafayetteWhen last I wrote of Marie-Paul-Joseph-Roch-Yves-Gilbert-Motier de Lafayette, he was escaping the trappings of a court life to which he did not fit and a change in climate for the noble born military officer with little prospect of work. Still a tender 19 years old when he left the country of his birth to eventually become “the Hero of Two Worlds, the Apostle of Liberty”. I have yet to answer: What characteristic made Lafayette so special? We have many, many lodges named Lafayette, and not named for the other important men who fought for the glorious cause. What are the reasons for this? What were Lafayette's real contributions to the American cause? Was there an impact in America from his membership? I apologize, for I will continue on with the story, but resist answering these questions for the moment.

The Comte de Broglie and his plans to usurp Washington were still affecting the fate of Lafayette, through his affiliation with Johann de Kalb. Silas Deane, as the “secret envoy” from the Continental Congress to France was no secret to the Paris outside of the court. Deane was supposed to be working with the court to obtain four military engineers, clothing, arms, ammunition, and field pieces. Thanks to the plans of de Broglie, his agent de Kalb was having many French military officers visit Deane to offer their services. It was almost a secret army inundating an unsuspecting ally with the purpose of taking over the fight. At first Deane was enthusiastic, but the onslaught of soirees and influence wore upon him. Deane began to supply papers recommending these officers to the Continental Army and the French King appeared have no issues with these officers setting sail, and many did so. Lafayette and his young friends made a pact to do so themselves, but trouble brewed with his father-in-law, who tried to stop him. Lafayette continued pressing Deane for a commission as a high ranking officer, claiming that his passion and zeal were matched by his ability to generate publicity and the fact he was able to finance himself completely. Deane also found that Lafayette's family connections to the court would be extremely valuable to the American cause. [1] Like with de Broglie, the Americans sought after the Marquis for his implications over his inexperience. Lafayette wound up having to purchase a ship and escape from the crown after a series of problems sparked by those same connections being too much for the king to openly back the American cause at this point. With his extremely expensive new ship “La Victoire” - “Victory”, he eventually made his way to the new world with appointment by Deane “in the name of the very honorable Congress the Rank of Major General.” While leaping from Captain to Major-General, he would not bound across the ocean, but drag along what Lafayette thought of as a sad sea for eight long weeks and land fifty miles northeast of their intended landing at Charleston. To make matters worse, they landed late in the evening with out anyone to greet them that spoke French, and wound up running into two slaves who just brought the Frenchmen to their unsuspecting master. The wary crew does make it to Charleston, where we find Lafayette's letters to his wife to espouse how wonderful the town was and how nice the people were. This was at a time when there was known hostility to all the arriving French officers, many of whom did not speak French, were rude, and mercenary in their behavior. Their travel from the ship had been extremely poor as well, as their carts turned to splinters, some of their bags stolen, and the heat and environment with no food leading to starvation and dysentery. What may have set the Marquis on the right course was Masonry. There are several legends, which I have been unable to verify, that Marquis and his close friends from the ship wind up finding some Freemasons in Charleston. What is confirmed is the odd connection that will come much later from the house of the man they stay with originally, Major Benjamin Huger. His three year old son will one day attempt a rescue of the Marquis from an Austrian controlled prison, in what is today part of the Czech Republic.

For all of these adventures upon the Marquis' path, he and his comrades did not expect the cool reception they received upon finally arriving at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. General Washington, already receiving French troops and wary of language barriers and the suspected plot of de Broglie, had sent letters to congress about his desires to not have further officers. Some of the men who arrived were known to be involved with de Broglie, especially de Kalb, and the others considered guilty by association. Additionally, Silas Deane had sent Major-General Philippe Charles Tronson du Coudray as engineer and also given in to his exorbitant demands, making him the head of all America's engineers and artillery. Coudray made things worse by demanding huge sums of money, prestige, and with haughty behavior ensured all other Frenchman were eyed warily. The remaining engineers that Deane sent were also unsatisfactory, which Benjamin Franklin eventually had to resolve.[1] The Americans were concerned with Coudray's claims of influence in the French government, which turned out to be somewhat spurious. With these issues at hand, Lafayette and company arrive unbidden to Congress. The Frenchmen were deflected a few times before being examined further by representatives of Congress. Lafayette's protests were done well enough to convince the interviewing congressman that his service without pay was of value. Congress actually passed a resolution confirming the Marquis as Major-General, and in an unusual manner specifying his service was “accepted” as “volunteer”...”without pension or allowance”.[2] He had no command and was a volunteer at his own expense. He dutifully brought in a few others as aides-de-camp. Most of the men who came on La Victoire returned to France, although de Kalb and others would join Lafayette under the same aspect of volunteer eventually. He was able to influence men with his zeal for the cause of liberty and his optimism. Congress also noted this in their resolution, where few resolutions for military appointments ever made such comment. The author David Clary, in his book Adopted Son, makes the claim that what occurred with Congress was an error in communication. Mr. Clary maintains that while Congress said “Volunteer”, Lafayette heard “volontaire”, “which in the French army mean a young noble attached to a general officer as a military apprentice, who performed the duties of an aide-de-camp. He had no official position until he moved on to a staff assignment – or a line command.” [2]

This was a highly irregular idea for a Major-General to be such staff officer and rise to command, but it may have suited the Marquis to believe it to be the case in the Continental Army. Lafayette's zeal and optimism may have allowed him to blind himself to such duplicities in order to achieve his goals. This ability is often a characteristic of successful people. He was willing to fight for the glorious cause of American Liberty and in so doing he hoped to bring honor to himself. Congressmen, such as Henry Laurens, also noted these things in their letters of the time. A perfect opportunity to have a French noble achieve dignity on the field in a “short season” and return to France as a powerful ally in the French court. There was little consideration for the feelings of those other officers in the army at such appointments, nor consideration for Washington and what he should do with the Marquis. General Washington expresses confusion and bewilderment over just what to do with the Marquis and what exactly Congress had intended. Although Lafayette had a hope for glory in the United States, and although he was officially a Major-General in the Continental Army, he would have to wait for fate and opportunity for a chance to command. What few saw at this point was how vulnerable he could be to the plotting of others. Where de Broglie had sought to use the Marquis as a foreign take over of the army, domestic forces began to consider using him in like manner for their own mutinous designs.

Works Cited:

1. Auricchio, Laura, The Marquis: Lafayette reconsidered (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014)

2. Clary, David, Adopted Son: Washington, Lafayette, and the Friendship That Saved The Revolution (Bantam Books, 2007)