The “hero of two worlds” – as the Marquis de Lafayette has been called – has recently been in the news. A replica of the 18th century French frigate that ferried him to America on his most important mission has been making the rounds of the East Coast, on a journey to commemorate the historic relationship between the United States and France. In 1780, the Hermione (pronounced Hair-me-OWN) brought Lafayette to America with news that the French would be supporting the revolutionary cause with money and troops.
This trip was actually Lafayette’s second voyage to America. He first arrived on these shores in 1777, at only 19, to join the Continental Army. He purchased his own ship to make the trip because King Louis XVI forbade him to come.
“He came to America to re-invent himself,” said Laura Auricchio, who was at the Library last Tuesday discussing her new biography on the Marquis. “At Versailles, he was an awkward provincial, unsuited for the life of a courtier. The life he envisioned for himself was a life of military glory.”
Auricchio did much of her book research at the Library, which holds the microfilm papers of the Marquis de Lafayette. (This article from a 1995 issue of the Library of Congress Information Bulletin offers more insight into the scope and contents of Lafayette’s papers.)
Lafayette was commissioned a major general by Congress, having never fought in battle. According to Auricchio, George Washington thought the title honorary and was uncertain about placing the French nobleman in battle. However, the two men bonded almost immediately – Washington was impressed with Lafayette’s enthusiasm.
Lafayette proved his mettle in the Battle of Brandywine by rallying the troops during the American retreat, all while suffering from a wound in the leg. He was awarded the command of an actual army division following his recuperation.
“Lafayette became the living embodiment of the French-American alliance,” said Auricchio. “Washington was so impressed he took him under his wing.”
The Marquis stayed at Washington’s side in Valley Forge the winter of 1777-78. In these two letters from the Library’s collection of George Washington’s papers dated April 25, 1778 and June 17, 1778, Lafayette discusses military strategy with Washington, as they prepare their departure from camp.
In the June 17 letter, Lafayette writes, “An enterprise against Philadelphia, if successful, would be of an infinite and glorious advantage,” although he goes on the express concern of being discovered by the enemy. Two days later, the Continental Army retook Philadelphia following the departure of the British troops.
Lafayette returned to France in 1779 following campaigns in Barren Hill, Monmouth and Rhode Island. He had hoped to return to America as head of the French forces. While that distinction was ultimately given to Jean-Baptiste de Rochambeau (whose papers are also part of the Library’s collections), Lafayette returned to America in 1780 with Rochambeau and French troops and resumed his position as major general of American forces.
Lafayette’s forces played a major part in the Virginia campaign and siege of Yorktown in 1781. The Hermione was also part of the blockade that helped lead to the British surrender.
Included in the Library’s map collection are six rare manuscript maps drawn by Michel Capitaine du Chesnoy, the skilled cartographer who served as the Marquis de Lafayette’s aide-de-camp during the American Revolutionary War. As a group, the maps document major aspects of Lafayette’s activities while serving as a volunteer in the Continental Army directly under Washington’s command.
Beautifully drawn, hand colored, and in pristine condition, the Library’s collection includes a detailed map of the Virginia Campaign, dated 1781; two plans of the 1778 military activities in and around Newport, Rhode Island (here and here); a plan of the retreat from Barren Hill in Pennsylvania, 1778; a map of the Battle of Monmouth, New Jersey, 1778; and a map showing troop movements between the battles of Ticonderoga and Saratoga in New York, ca. 1777.
The large map of Virginia is considered to be one of the most important examples of Revolutionary War cartography. It documents the many skirmishes and military engagements that took place in 1781 on the long road to victory at Yorktown.
The Library is also home to the Rochambeau Map Collection, which contains cartographic items used by the commander in chief of the French expeditionary army (1780-82) during the American Revolution.
Shortly after the British defeat at Yorktown, the Marquis returned to France. He wouldn’t make another trip to America until 1824, and he never saw Washington again. For the remainder of his life he was an ardent friend and supporter of the United States. You can read more correspondence in Washington’s papers by searching for “Lafayette.” You can also read congressional documents pertaining to the Marquis in the Library’s collection of U.S. congressional documents and debates.
When Lafayette passed away on May 20, 1834, Congress passed a resolution to honor “the friend of the United States, the friend of Washington and the friend of liberty.” Both houses of Congress were “dressed in mourning for the residue of the session,” members wore mourning badges for 30 days (and it was recommended that the American people do the same), and it was requested that John Adams give an oration on the life and character of Lafayette at the next session.