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Guns, Uniforms, & Lafayette
"Humanity has won its battle. Liberty now has a country."
- Marquis de Lafayette
During the American Revolution, Congress dithered in its support for the beleaguered American army. For most of the war the colonials fought with an abhorrent lack of food, weapons, and uniforms. However, allies from overseas, especially France, provided critical assistance—both economic and military. The most important advocate was the Frenchman, Marquis de Lafayette, who served brilliantly along George Washington’s side. His heroic exploits helped support Ben Franklin’s efforts in Paris to rally the French until they supplied nearly ninety percent of the small arms carried by the Continental army and all of its artillery. But Lafayette contributed just as much to the spirit of the Revolutionary cause, becoming practically adopted by Washington as the son he never had.
Lafayette was born and raised from a long line of fighting French aristocrats. He romanticized the American revolution from afar until, just prior to sailing across the Atlantic to join the Patriot cause, Lafayette changed the motto on his coat of arms from “Determination is enough to overcome destiny” to “Why not?” When the Marquis showed up at Valley Forge to present himself to Washington, the two impressive physical forms shook hands: Lafayette was handsome, at six feet, four inches tall, one of the few who could look six-foot-two-inch Washington straight in the eyes. After examining Lafayette’s splendid uniform, Washington commented on the relative plainness of his soldiers’ attire and how they could learn from such a distinguished representative of military lineage; Lafayette sensing an important moment, snapped to attention and offered the perfect response:
“I have come to learn, mon general, not to teach.”
Lafayette felt at home among his adopted comrades-in-arms at Valley Forge: “Once I set foot in the American camp, I gave up bookish studies. Forgetting belles-lettres, I attempted to educate myself in a cruel and barbarous art. I am so possessed by the demon of war that I have totally abandoned myself to military occupations. Finally, having renounced the gentle company of women, verse, and the Muses, I now find pleasure in the horrible voluptuousness of Bellona [Roman goddess of war].” After serving for several months as an aide to Washington, he behaved gallantly at the Battle of Brandywine, receiving a wound that took him out of action for several months. Upon recovering, Lafayette created a new Light Division of Special Forces with men “mostly of middle size, active, robust, and trusty, and the first twenty must be all old soldiers.” Displaying an innate grasp for tactical surprise, he defeated a larger force of Hessians during a routine reconnaissance mission at Gloucester Point. In recognition of his battlefield exploits, he was given command of a division.
On May 19, 1778, an overwhelming British force unexpectedly attacked Lafayette’s unit, but he responded well and withdrew in good order without suffering a single loss. This ability to execute a retreat is often considered the best measure of a commander’s abilities—and this gave Washington proof as to his young charge’s skill in handling men. Washington demonstrated this confidence in Lafayette by entrusting command of an important outflanking rear attack at the Battle of Monmouth. During the battle, the Continentals under command of General Lee began a strange retreat, causing Lafayette to suspect Lee of treachery and so he signaled Washington to come to the front. An outraged Washington galloped into Lee’s camp and demanded, “What’s the meaning of this, Sir?” Lee replied that the Americans were unequal to British bayonets, to which an enraged Washington shouted, “You damned poltroon, you never tried them.” Shouting “till the leaves shook on tress,” Washington took command and spurred his horse into the midst of retreating American troops. Herding them back into formation: “Stand fast, my boys! The southern troops are advancing to support you!” Lafayette backed his beloved General with a well-positioned support unit, watching Washington personally reverse the course of a devastating battle:
“General Washington was never greater in battle than in this action. His presence stopped the retreat; his strategy secured the victory. His stately appearance on horseback, his calm, dignified courage, tinged only by anger caused by the unfortunate incident in the morning, provoked a wave of enthusiasm among the troops.”
- Lafayette on Washington
In 1781 the war reached its climax at Yorktown. It was battle-hardened Lafayette who designed a plan to finish the siege of encircled British forces. Under cover of darkness, with unloaded muskets, Alexander Hamilton and three columns of men stormed a redoubt with fixed bayonets to take a key British fort. Achieving success by total surprise, the advantage was quickly exploited by charging French troops, collapsing the British left flank. With water escape cut off by a Gallic fleet, General Cornwallis surrendered his 9,000 men. One month later when Lord North received the news in London, he broke out, “Oh, God! It is all over!” It took another two years for the British to admit ultimate defeat with a dispirited King George proclaiming: “We meant well to the Americans—just to punish them with a few bloody noses.” Franklin summed up the British disgrace with characteristic humor to an English friend: “An American planter was chosen by us to command our troops, and . . . sent home to you, one after another, five of your best generals baffled, their heads bare of laurels, disgraced even in the opinion of their employers.”
In the final analysis, virtue was the most important factor contributing to American success. England, with its corrupt character, was no match for the hardy Rebels: “Who but a pompous blockhead . . . could expect to conquer a hardy virtuous set of men” who were “strangers to that luxury which effeminates the mind and body.” The British themselves understood that their defeat was symptomatic of a society with a government headed toward scurrilous despotism: “We have lost America—we have lost dominion of the sea—we have nearly lost Ireland—and what is worse than all, the constitution is at the verge of death.”Lafayette returned to France and was a central figure in the French Revolution. He remained in constant contact with America’s Founders, especially Washington – sending the first US president a key from the Bastille.
I have come to learn, mon general, not to teach.
- Lafayette to Washington