Portraying the Marquis de Lafayette, Colonial Williamsburg’s Mark Schneider tells the story of the Frenchman who helped save the American Revolution.
Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on history.org. As we celebrate the anniversary of America's independence this month, we'll consider the Revolution from the perspective of Virginians from all walks of life.
Today, I'm with Mark Schneider, who interprets the Marquis de Lafayette at Colonial Williamsburg. Mark will be speaking as the Marquis de Lafayette, giving us the first-person perspective of this youthful Frenchman whose assistance helped the Patriots clinch the decisive battle of the Revolutionary War.
If I remember correctly, you were a teenager when you actually became the Marquis de Lafayette, inheriting the title and a considerable amount of money from your grandfather. So, until you were the Marquis, who were you?
Marquis de Lafayette: Well, before that, my name was Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert de Motier, soon to be le Marquis de Lafayette.
Lloyd: I won't repeat that, which will give us both a break. For reasons of your own -- not because your family wanted it, or indeed, because the king wanted it – you came to the United States. You were not yet 21.
Lafayette: I was but 19 years old, monsieur.
Lafayette: Well, there are many reasons. First and foremost, my father, the former Marquis de Lafayette, was unfortunately killed when I was but 2 years old, at the Battle of Minden, in 17 and 59. I wanted to avenge my father's death against the English, so here was a golden opportunity to fight against them. Albeit, it would not be under the colors of France, but it would be under the new colors, that of the United States of America.
I did first hear of this cause of American independence while I was attending a dinner at the comte de Broglie's house. He had first talked of this revolution which was taking place in America, and upon first hearing of it, and the reasons these young Americans decided to revolt, I did decide to put my colors to it, and fight for this cause of American liberty.
Lloyd: As a 19-year-old Frenchman, albeit quite a wealthy one, you got to the United States, as I remember, on your own ship. So, you didn't exactly have to pay passage, but you bought the whole ship, that was nice. You presented yourself to Congress – what about you made Congress say, "Yes, let's make the man a major general"?
Lafayette: Ah, yes, I remember those days. I did purchase a ship, fittingly called La Victorie, The Victory, and set sail across the great ocean. Upon arriving, I did not arrive immediately in Philadelphia, but rather, several hundred miles to the south, in Georgetown, South Carolina. When I finally made my way northward to Philadelphia, I presented myself before your Congress, and told them that I wished to serve in this cause of American independence. At first they said to me, "We do not have enough soldiers to give you a command." Well, undeterred, I again said to them, "Well then, I simply wish to serve as an aide-de-camp for General Washington." But again they said to me, "Forgive us, Monsieur le Marquis, but this is not possible, for we do not have enough money to pay you." Well, finally I told them, "I will serve at my own expense." And would you know it, my friend, with that, they made me a major general. (Chuckles.)
Lloyd: Congress seems remarkably unchanged. Your relationship with Washington has been noted. When you were wounded early on, Washington sent his own surgeon to take care of you, and according to rumor, told the surgeon to treat you as if you were his son.
Lafayette: 'Tis true, monsieur. Upon first meeting General Washington, the very day after that I did receive my commission from Congress, when he did walk into the room, I knew who he was by the majesty in his face, by the way in which he carried himself. He was an aristocrat without the name. He was a nobleman without the title. He came forth to me and held my hand, and said, "I thank you, Monsieur le Marquis, for coming to support this cause. Think of this new place as your new home. Think of the officers around you as your new family, and think of me as your new friend." And with this, I of course did embrace him, and say to him, "From now on, I shall have two countries: France, and the United States of America."
After the Battle of Brandywine, in which I was wounded in my left leg, it is true that General Washington did dispatch his own surgeon to look after my wounds. It was from then on that we developed a father-and-son relationship. Of course, my father had been killed when I was but 2 years old. He was not entirely replaced, but this man truly inspired all, and that is why I think of him as the father of this great country.
Lloyd: If he was sort of your surrogate father, he was not particularly generous to you, because when Jefferson wrote from Virginia and said, "Come home, and defend your native state," what he did was send you and an insufficient troop to face Cornwallis and quite a nice-sized troop. If I have read dispatches correctly, you didn't even have enough people to lose a battle.
Lafayette: (Chuckles.) Well, perhaps our reports are a bit different, monsieur. But, I thought it a great honor for General Washington to dispatch me here to Virginia, there to defend this great commonwealth against Lord Cornwallis. But first, it was the General Benedict Arnold, the traitor of the cause. He once did serve it, but sadly, did turn his back upon it in exchange for English gold and English command.
Well, though I did have a very small army, I put it to its best use, and played a cat-and-mouse game with Lord Cornwallis. General Benedict Arnold was dispatched northward to New York, and then to Connecticut, and when Lord Cornwallis came in, I did my best to protect this commonwealth. We fought many small engagements -- at Point of Fork, at Spencer's Ordinary, and then, in July of 17 and 81, at the Battle of Greensprings, near Jamestown. There, I thought I was attacking the rear guard of Lord Cornwallis' forces, but in reality, it was the majority of his army. I did attack, and I was nearly destroyed, were it not for the great efforts of the Pennsylvanians under General Anthony Wayne. He was able to launch an attack to save my small force. It would be soon after that General Washington would send a dispatch informing me that he was not going to attack New York, but rather, he was going to march southwards to surround Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown with not only his Continental forces, but the army of the French, under Le Comte de Rochambeau.
Lloyd: I had not known you had come that close to being wiped out. That would have changed the course of Yorktown and all that followed, would it not have?
Lafayette: 'Tis true, monsieur. With the destruction of the only Continental forces in Virginia, I dare say that Lord Cornwallis could have run throughout the commonwealth unopposed, taking all of the stores and supplies. With the English ships in the vicinity, who knows what would have happened? It was providence that we were not destroyed.
Lloyd: So, providence, or good generalship, or the aid of the Pennsylvanians – whatever you want to call it, you weren't. So you were actually, for any practical purpose, toward the end of the campaign, you were actually the blocking force to hold Cornwallis with his back to the water while he was on the end of the middle peninsula.
Lafayette: That is correct, monsieur. What forces I did have of the 1,500 Continentals, and as many as 2,000 of the militia raised here in Virginia, was to oppose Lord Cornwallis and his army and prevent him from taking all of the supplies.
Lloyd: Let's play "what if." What do you think would have happened, had he been able to break through you, run around the commonwealth as he pretty well pleased, and I would assume, head north? Could Washington have bottled him up anywhere else that you can think of?
Lafayette: Well of course, monsieur. There is a possibility of that. But, the English campaign in the South was to begin all the way in the Georgias and South Carolina. With their soldiers marching northwards, they were gathering support, loyalist support. There was a large army in New York, under General Clinton. If Lord Cornwallis was to run unopposed through Virginia, perhaps he could have gone into Maryland, and further northwards. With the combined forces of General Clinton and Lord Cornwallis, they could have encountered General Washington and destroyed him there if the French and American armies did not unite. Even if they did unite, perhaps they still would have been defeated. Much depended upon timing, not only of the land armies of the French and the Americans, but also that of the French fleet coming up from the West Indies under Admiral de Grasse.
Lloyd: You had another few ships coming down from the north, who arrived a little bit later, but they also brought siege guns and meat for the troops, which certainly was welcomed. This is probably not a fair question to ask, but maybe it's not so terribly unfair with a man of your tactical skill: at what point do you believe that you and Washington knew, or felt you knew, that Yorktown would be a decisive victory for the Americans and French?
Lafayette: I remember it well, monsieur. It was in the middle of September, 17 and 81. As the French and the American armies had marched in secret down from New York and Newport, Rhode Island, and assembled in Williamsburg city, it was then, with Lord Cornwallis entrenched at Yorktown, that I knew we would have victory. We had just received the grand news that Admiral de Grasse had defeated Admiral Graves of the English in the Battle of the Capes on the 5th of September. That meant Lord Cornwallis was unable to be re-supplied or able to be evacuated by sea. He was trapped at Yorktown. It was simply a question of time.
Lloyd: "Question of time" makes it sound very simple. It wasn't quite that simple, it involved a fairly severe siege over several days, and at least one attempt by Cornwallis to break out, which was destroyed by the weather. A little bit more involved than just standing around waiting for time to pass.
Lafayette: True enough, monsieur. There was more to it, but, we had all of the favors of a siege on our side. You see, we did outnumber him 2-to-1 at least, we did outnumber him in cannon to bombard him, and he was ill supplied. Those conditions in our favor meant that we could soon have an easy victory. Now granted, he did sally forth and try to escape from Gloucester Point, trying to bring his soldiers across the great York River, but yes, providence once again perhaps with the foul weather prevented the English soldiers from escaping. That is why I say it was more simple than perhaps it was. But yes, great soldiers, brave soldiers, both French and American, gave their lives in this siege. For what? Well, for American liberty and American independence.
Lloyd: That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present this time with Mark Schneider portraying the Marquis de Lafayette. Check history.org often, we’ll post more for you to download and hear.