Lafayette Returns to the US and Lays the Cornerstone of America’s First Great War Monument “as a representative of the Revolutionary Army”

Representing that army, of which he was the last surviving major general, would be “one of the highest gratifications I can ever enjoy.”

Purchase $17,500

He intends to arrive via the newly built Erie Canal

On June 17, 1775, the British army under General William Howe, supported by Royal Navy warships, attacked the defenses the colonists had erected on Bunker and Breeds Hills. The British troops moved up Breeds Hill in perfect battle formations. Patriot leader William...

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Lafayette Returns to the US and Lays the Cornerstone of America’s First Great War Monument “as a representative of the Revolutionary Army”

Representing that army, of which he was the last surviving major general, would be “one of the highest gratifications I can ever enjoy.”

He intends to arrive via the newly built Erie Canal

On June 17, 1775, the British army under General William Howe, supported by Royal Navy warships, attacked the defenses the colonists had erected on Bunker and Breeds Hills. The British troops moved up Breeds Hill in perfect battle formations. Patriot leader William Prescott allegedly encouraged his men “not fire until you see the whites of their eyes.” Two assaults on the colonial positions were repulsed with significant British casualties; the third and final attack carried the position after the defenders ran out of ammunition. The colonists retreated to Cambridge over Bunker Hill, leaving the British in control of Charlestown but still besieged in Boston. The battle was a tactical victory for the British because they held the ground, but it proved to be a sobering experience, involving more than twice the casualties than the Americans had incurred, including many officers. The battle had demonstrated that inexperienced Continental militia could stand up to regular British army troops in battle, at a time when the British were considered to have the finest army in the world. It encouraged revolutionaries throughout America, and made the success of such a revolution actually seem possible.

In 1823, Edward Everett, Daniel Webster, famed physician John C. Warren, and others co-founded the Bunker Hill Monument Association, which sought to memorialize that battle with a grand monument. They petitioned the Massachusetts House and Senate for recognition and support and a subsequent Act was passed giving both. Then began the work to draw interest, raise money, design the monument, and build it, a years-long effort that created the first major monument to the American Revolution, and the first public obelisk in the United States. In 1824 and 1825 they began notifying the public of their work, elected their officers, and then wrote a circular eliciting donations, and elected prominent men honorary members. They informed these men, and the responses the committee received back were from many great men of the era, including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Oliver Wolcott, Joseph Story, and the Marquis de Lafayette.

The Marquis de Lafayette was revered in the United States as a hero of the Revolution, and as a friend of George Washington and of the United States. By the 1820s was the last surviving major general of the Continental Army, and among a dwindling number of the major players still living. In February 1824, Lafayette received a letter from President James Monroe on behalf of Congress following a joint resolution, inviting him to visit the United States. The letter expressed the “sincere attachment of the whole Nation…whose ardent desire is once more to see you amongst them.” Lafayette was excited to return to America and departed from the French port of Le Havre on July 13, 1824. He was accompanied by his son, George Washington Motier de Lafayette.

During Lafayette’s celebrated return to America in 1824-5, he visited all 24 states, and traveled more than 6,000 miles. More than 80 American counties, cities, towns, and countless roads were named in his honor. The celebrations of his arrival that ensued were reportedly some of the largest, most amazing ever held in the United States to that date. He was greeted his entire journey by huge, cheering crowds and lavish banquets and balls of celebration. People were thrilled to entertain one of the most famous heroes of the American Revolution. One account of a ball given in New York City observes that it was “the most brilliant and magnificent scene ever witnessed in the United States.” Six thousand ladies and gentlemen attended it.

He toured the northern and eastern states in the fall of 1824, including Boston, where in September 3000 children ages 8-12 lined up to receive him. They “wore ribbons in their breasts, stamped with a miniature likeness of Lafayette.” There Lafayette was informed of the Bunker Hill monument project. He then headed south. It was businessman and future congressman Abbott Lawrence who first suggested to the Bunker Hill Monument Association that it enlist the Marquis de Lafayette and invite him to lay the cornerstone of the monument during his trip. In the end, Lafayette would lay the cornerstone.

On March 25, 1825, Everett wrote Lafayette, updating him on the progress of the monument, giving him the expected date for laying the cornerstone, and formally inviting him to be present. “Dear General, It gives me great pleasure to have it in my power, by order of the Committee of the Directors of the Bunker Hill Monument Association, to inform you that the undertaking in which we have engaged has prospered beyond our expectations. When we enjoyed the happiness of your visit last autumn, it was proposed only to commence the erection of the monument this spring. The Directors had indeed determined, at all events, to celebrate the ever memorable 17th of June in the most honorable manner, and felt themselves more than fortunate in receiving your kind promise to be present at this great commemoration. But whether we should have it in our power, the next June, to make the beginning of the great monumental work which we design to construct, was at that time doubtful. You will sympathize, I am sure, in the pleasure we feel at finding such ample means already at the disposal of the Board of Directors, that they will be enabled, without fail, to lay the corner-stone of the monument on the 17th of June next.

“I am instructed by the Committee, in this formal and official way, to repeat their invitation to you to be present on the interesting occasion, and to assure you that nothing contributes more to the interest with which we look forward to this great national ceremony than the circumstance that the “Nation’s Guest ” has kindly promised to witness it. In behalf of the Committee of the Directors, I have the honor to be, dear General, your most faithful, humble servant, E. Everett.”

Lafayette responded. Autograph letter signed, Wheeling, Va., May 24, 1825, to Everett, confirming his intention to be there, and expressing emotion on being the representative of the Continental Army at the occasion. “Your kind letter in the name of the Committee for the Bunker Hill monument has lately reached me on my rapid way to the celebration of the great half century anniversary day of the 17th June. I must say that whenever the kindness of my friends, my own wishes, and even a sense of propriety, in other respects, should have detained me in my progress through the Southern and Western states, it has sufficed on all parts, to expedite my journey, to have it remember that I had the honor to be invited to Boston, as a representative of the Revolutionary Army, on that memorable occasion equally interesting to the whole confederate union. I am proceeding after a visit to Mr. Gallatin to Pittsburgh, Erie, and along the Canal to Albany, in the hope to be with you on the 15th June. But at least early on the 16th. I will write again as soon as I can ascertain the calculation of my progressing days but feel myself assured I shall not miss one of the highest gratifications I can ever enjoy. Present my respects to the gentlemen of the Committee, remember me to your brothers and all friends…”

The cornerstone was laid on June 17, 1825, the 50th anniversary of the battle, and was perhaps the largest American patriotic civic occasions up to that time. Participants estimated that 100,000 people turned out to witness the mile-long procession from Boston to Charlestown, which included government dignitaries, Lafayette, and veterans of the battle. Thousands gathered on Bunker Hill to watch Lafayette lay the cornerstone, to partake of refreshments, and to listen to a stirring speech by Daniel Webster.

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