The Birth of a Legend: 20-Year-Old Marquis de Lafayette Leaves France Behind and Sets Sail for America and into History

In what is likely his last letter from France before the war, written from the vessel that brought him, he hopes his acts will be worthy: “…It will cost me dearly to leave my friends, but I am revived by the hopes of meriting their confidence in me...."

Purchase $82,000

The only letter of Lafayette on this subject having reached the market: “This chateau [cabin] will begin moving in one moment. I even suspect that it might lead me directly to Philadelphia…”

Two year old Lafayette’s father was killed in action at the Battle of Minden on August 1, 1759, fighting against...

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The Birth of a Legend: 20-Year-Old Marquis de Lafayette Leaves France Behind and Sets Sail for America and into History

In what is likely his last letter from France before the war, written from the vessel that brought him, he hopes his acts will be worthy: “…It will cost me dearly to leave my friends, but I am revived by the hopes of meriting their confidence in me...."

The only letter of Lafayette on this subject having reached the market: “This chateau [cabin] will begin moving in one moment. I even suspect that it might lead me directly to Philadelphia…”

Two year old Lafayette’s father was killed in action at the Battle of Minden on August 1, 1759, fighting against British officers – including Cornwallis, who would later become his son’s enemy in America. Lafayette was educated at the Collège du Plessis before moving to the Académie de Versailles for military training. He was heir to a vast fortune that he expanded at age 16 by marrying a relative of the French royal family. In 1775, at age 18, Lafayette was sent to do military service under his cousin, the Count de Broglie, whose older brother was a Marshal of France and commander in chief of the army. Both had been friends of Lafayette’s father, and were in the best possible position to train Lafayette for a military career. That summer – 1775 – Lafayette was present at a dinner for the Duke of Gloucester, brother of King George III, who described the revolt in the American colonies, surprisingly with some sympathy. Then and there, said Lafayette in his Memoirs, he formed an irrevocable determination to join the colonists in their struggle against Britain.

By 1776 Lafayette was a captain of cavalry and enthralled with the Enlightenment ideals of liberty and equality contained in the new Declaration of Independence. On November 5 of that year, Count de Broglie met with Silas Deane, the American agent hired by Congress as a clandestine representative in France, to find arms and recruit foreign officers to serve in the Continental Army. Deane was eager to obtain whatever support he could for the colonies’ fight, and de Broglie would be a prize catch. De Broglie brought with him the Baron DeKalb, a German then serving in the French Army, who wanted to go to America. De Kalb obtained from Deane a promise of an officer’s appointment in the Continental Army. Deane was elated that such a highly qualified army man had stepped forward, and De Kalb became a major general in the American service.

On November 8, De Kalb returned to see Deane and brought with him the Marquis de Lafayette and two of his relatives, all eager for commissions in the American Army. Deane was at first nervous that taking such highly-placed young men might bring down the wrath of the French authorities, and tried to discourage them. Meanwhile word got out, and the young men were forbidden to go by their families and government. Lafayette was irritated and resolved to break through the restraints and go anyway, especially as he saw other Frenchmen accepted as officers in the American service. He showed up to see Deane on December 7, and signed an agreement with him to receive a commission as Major General in the American Army. Deane had now given out a few dozen commissions, the doing of which exceeded his authority, but he felt justified by the enthusiasm of the French. In any event, he wrote Congress that he had commissioned Lafayette, and gave his reasons his high birth and wealth, “his personal merit, his reputation…and above all, his zeal for the liberty of our provinces…” Lafayette wrote Deane in accepting, “…I offer myself…to serve the United States with all possible zeal, without any pension or particular allowance…”

The center of the activities of Lafayette and the other Frenchmen going to America was the country home of the Count de Broglie, who was encouraging the enterprise. It was there in late January that the decision to buy their own ship as transport to America was made, as this would avoid notice and suspicion, and enable them to fly under the French government’s radar. Lafayette would finance the ship, and in mid-February Lafayette wrote to say, “I have just bought my vessel…in a month at the latest I hope to be able to carry to your country the zeal which animates me for their happiness, their glory, and their liberty.” Lafayette had spent 112,000 francs on the ship, which he called La Victoire (the Victory).

On March 16, 1777, Lafayette and DeKalb secretly left for Bordeaux to further their plans to sail to America. They arrived on the 19th. On hearing of their flight, King Louis XVI forbade their plans, Lafayette’s family ordered him to tour Italy for a year instead, and the matter was the talk of Paris (with many applauding Lafayette). To get their ship out of the government’s reach, La Victoire left Bordeaux on March 23, 1777 and sailed for the Spanish coast. Lafayette was met by a French courier at Los Pasajes in Spain with a directive to return to Bordeaux. Leaving the ship and its men in Spain, Lafayette returned, and upon his arrival there, sent a letter requesting the French Court remove the prohibition order. After several days with no reply, Lafayette wrote again, stating that silence was tantamount to consent. As he left Bordeaux accompanied by an officer, Lafayette told the commandant he was returning to Marseilles. But once outside the gate, the officer, Lafayette’s friend Vicomte de Mauroy, sat in the chaise while the Marquis changed into the clothes of a post-boy and rode along on horseback, headed not for Marseilles, but Los Pasajes. Barely dodging the King’s order to desist, Lafayette made his way back to Spain and was on board the Victoire on the 17th of April.

The ship was then readied to travel, and on April 20, 1777, Lafayette gave the order to sail for America, telling the authorities he was bound for Santa Domingo, but instead heading for the American colonies.

Armand-Charles-Augustin de La Croix de Castries, the Count de Charlux, was a close friend of Lafayette. He went on to become aide de camp to General Rochambeau in the Revolutionary War. Autograph letter signed, on board the ship La Victoire, April 20, 1777, to Charlux. “Here I find myself for the second time in my little chateau [his ship’s cabin], my dear Charlux, and this chateau will begin moving in one moment. I even suspect that it might lead me directly to Philadelphia; before departing I want to bid you farewell. Do you recall our conversation with the Prince on the expedition of the Amphitrite, with which I was not content? I hope this will better succeed and will arrive in safe harbors. Good evening my dear friend. I wish you all happiness possible and the accomplishment of all our wishes…. Love me always. It will cost me dearly to leave my friends, but I am revived by the hopes of meriting their confidence in me….”

La Victoire sailed into South Inlet, near Georgetown, S.C. on June 13, 1777, after a 54-day cruise and avoiding patrolling British frigates. Needing a pilot to bring them into the bay, Lafayette and a small group of men were taken to the summer home of Maj. Benjamin Huger, who arranged for them to travel to Charleston by horseback while a pilot brought the ship into harbor. During the long trek to Pennsylvania, they suffered heat and dysentery, yet through it all, Lafayette kept his optimism and a dry wit, as evidenced by a July 17, 1777 letter he sent his wife from Petersburg, Va.: “You have probably heard of the beginning of my journey and how brilliantly I started out in a carriage. I have to inform you that we are now on horseback, after having broken the wagons in my usual praiseworthy fashion, and I expect to write you before long that we have reached our destination on foot.” He reached Philadelphia on July 27, 1777, where, on July 31, Lafayette was commissioned “Major General without pay.” Lafayette’s first sight of the American troops came on August 8 when Gen. George Washington reviewed the Continental Army. Soon Lafayette would be an integral part of that army, and a virtual son to Washington.

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