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Lafayette came to America a rebellious youth whose defiance of his king made him a celebrity in France. His money and connections attracted the favor of the Continental Congress, which advised Washington to keep the exuberant Marquis from getting himself killed. But when the boy-general was wounded in his first battle, he became a hero of two countries. As the war ground on, Washington found in his young charge the makings of a courageous and talented commander whose loyalty, generosity, and eagerness to please his Commander in Chief made him one of the war’s most effective and inspired generals. Lafayette’s hounding of Cornwallis’s army was the perfect demonstration of Washington’s unconventional “bush-fighting” tactics, and led to the British surrender at Yorktown.
Their friendship continued throughout their lives. Lafayette inspired widespread French support for a struggling young America and personally influenced Washington’s antislavery views. Washington’s enduring example as general and statesman guided Lafayette during France’s own revolution years later.
Using personal letters and other key historical documents, Adopted Son offers a rare glimpse of the American Revolution through the friendship between Washington and Lafayette. It offers dramatic accounts of battles and intimate portraits of such major figures as Alexander Hamilton, Benedict Arnold, and Benjamin Franklin. The result is a remarkable, little-known epic of friendship, revolution, and the birth of a nation.
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I Was All on Fire
to Have a Uniform
(SEPTEMBER 1757-DECEMBER 1775)
Of all the animals in the world,
the most unmanageable is the boy.
Auvergne was a region of ancient lava flows and eroded volcanic necks, an eerie landscape, rugged and heavily forested, where ghosts and monsters and strange beasts lurked. In its level spaces it supported farming on its rich volcanic soil. Sheep grazed on the gentler slopes surrounding the fields, and hogs rooted on the edges of the woodlands. Around them, the tortured, wooded mountains inspired fears. It was a land of ignorance, superstition, hard labor, and poverty.
A journey to Paris, about 200 miles north, took more than two weeks in 1757. The area had always been isolated, owing to the rugged landscape and bad roads. Those same qualities had given the province a tragic place in history. In 52 bc, the town of Alesia in Auvergne was the last stronghold of the Celtic Gauls (called the Avernii by the Romans). Under Vercingetorix, they had fought the conquering Roman armies through years of brutal combat. The mighty power of the Roman Empire told on the Gauls, however, until the last resisters, about 80,000 of them, were surrounded by Julius Caesar's troops and earthworks.
An army of Belgii, another Celtic nation, marched to their relief, but the Romans slaughtered them to the last man. Vercingetorix offered to surrender Alesia and offer himself as a hostage to spare the lives of his people. Caesar accepted, then ordered his troops to massacre the Gaulish soldiers and sold the people into slavery, scattering them across the Empire. He sent Vercingetorix to Rome, where he was beheaded as an insurgentus.
Gaul ceased to exist except as a province of the Roman Empire. Celtic was no longer spoken and was replaced by the Low Latin of the Roman soldiers. Over the centuries, that Latin became French, and what once was Gaul became France.
THE FAMILY'S MISFORTUNES IN WAR BECAME A
KIND OF PROVERB
Lafayette was born on September 6, 1757, in the same room of the Château de Chavaniac as his father before him, the top-floor chamber of one of the building's corner towers. The house–built in the pseudo-castle "Château style" on the foundations of a real castle that had burned down in the 1690s–was a Normanesque pile of stone with twenty large rooms and a slate roof. It was as cold as a barn in the winter despite its many large fireplaces. The Château was separated from the neighboring village of Chavaniac by a moat, just as its neighborhood was separated from the rest of France by the forbidding landscape of Auvergne.
The hereditary title of marquis, for a nobleman of middling rank, had been in the family for three generations, a reward for military service to the king. The clan could be traced back as far as the year 1000, and members had served in France's wars ever since. But Lafayette was descended from a line of younger sons (eldest sons inherited properties and titles), most of them Champetières who traced back to the thirteenth century. The history of Lafayette's forebears was a litany of younger sons who started out in poverty, married well, sired offspring, and went off to war to die young. They were close enough to Paris and Versailles to answer the call to arms but not near enough to be influential at court. They were provincial nobility, country bumpkins compared to the courtiers, glittering peacocks who surrounded the throne.
Nearly all Lafayette's ancestors had been warriors of greater or lesser repute. His great-grandfather Charles, a veteran soldier with a sterling reputation, began the family's rise out of recurrent poverty, founding its permanent fortune and receiving the title marquis de La Fayette. Charles' son Edouard married very well, acquiring Chavaniac along with his bride, and expanded his land holdings. His most notable military accomplishment was to fall off his horse and crack his head in front of the king. He survived long enough to produce two sons, Jacques-Roch and Gilbert, Lafayette's father. He left behind a domain that stretched thirty-five miles across Auvergne and seventy-five miles north to south, which Jacques-Roch would inherit.
However, Jacques-Roch died in a fierce battle with the Austrians when Lafayette's father was two. That left Gilbert holding in his little hands the family name and estates. He married Marie-Louise-Julie de La Rivière, daughter of an ancient line of wealthy nobles. Her dowry extended his real estate into Brittany and gave him, for the first time in the family's history, connections to the inner circle around the king. Her grandfather, the comte de La Rivière, commanded the Mousquetaires du Roi (King's Musketeers, later made famous by Alexandre Dumas' novel The Three Musketeers). Known as the Black and Gray Musketeers, the outfit was the king's personal horse guard.
It was a Catholic country, and infant mortality rates were high in 1757, so the newest Lafayette's prompt baptism was imperative, lest his baby soul end up in Limbo. It took place at the nearby parish church a few days after his birth, delayed to give his mother a chance to recover enough to attend. She did not make it. Neither did his father, who was away at war. His maternal grandfather, the marquis de La Rivière, had been expected, but the journey from Paris took too long. Lafayette's paternal grandmother, Marie-Catherine de Chavaniac, served as godmother, while his cousin the Abbé de Murat presided. He was baptized "the very high and very mighty lord Monseigneur Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier de La Fayette, legitimate son of the very high and very mighty lord Monseigneur Michel-Louis-Christophe-Roch-Gilbert du Motier, marquis de La Fayette, baron de Vissac, lord of Saint-Romain and other places, and of the very high and very mighty lady Madame Marie-Louise-Julie de La Rivière."
As this considerable mouthful of a name reflected, Lafayette's mother was a devoted Catholic, a habit that did not rub off on him. "I was baptized like a Spaniard," he said later, "and with no intention to deny myself the protection of Marie, Paul, Joseph, Roch, and Yves, I have most often called upon St. Gilbert," a wry reference not to the saint but to himself. His name, he told a correspondent, included that of every saint who might protect him in battle. So many Lafayettes had died fighting for France that "the family's misfortunes in war became a kind of proverb throughout the province."
Lafayette descended from a long line of orphans, whose sires achieved fatherhood a few jumps ahead of the Fatal Bullet. He joined their ranks before he was two years old, when his father was killed on August 1, 1759, at the Battle of Minden in Germany, while serving as a colonel of grenadiers in the French army. In one of the biggest battles of the Seven Years' War, the French lost about 5,000 men killed and wounded and several thousand more captured.
The elder Lafayette's commander had been ordered to keep his men below the skyline but rashly exposed them. When his immediate superior was killed, Lafayette stepped up to replace him, and as his son described it a half century later, he "was at once carried off by a ball from an English battery, commanded by a certain General Phillips."
William Phillips was at the time a twenty-eight-year-old captain in the British Royal Artillery, mentioned in dispatches for his "superlative practice" at Minden. In his next battle he became the first artillerist in history to bring his guns into action at a gallop. Lafayette would run across him later. "By a strange coincidence," he said, twenty-two years later two of his cannons opened fire on the English headquarters at Petersburg, Virginia. He claimed that one shot went through a house where Phillips was, killing him outright. This comment says much about Lafayette's accuracy as a chronicler of his own career, as Phillips died of disease, although the marquis did lob a cannonball his way.
FROM THE TIME I WAS EIGHT,
I LONGED FOR GLORY
Lafayette's father died, cut in two by English iron, before he had prepared a will. Young Gilbert succeeded to his feudal titles, while his widow reclaimed her dowry. Lafayette's grandmother appealed to the king for an allowance to raise him, and he granted a pension of 600 livres. Lafayette was not poor, however, because when his mother and grandmother died he could expect to receive an income of 25,000 livres. By the time he was four, an uncle died and he became future heir to the La Rivière fortune, with an annual income of 120,000 livres.
The boy marquis would not starve; a board of financial guardians would see to that. His family support was another matter. News of his father's death shattered his mother, who, consumed by her grief, abandoned him at Chavaniac and left for her family's home, the Luxembourg Palace in Paris. On April 5, 1760, barely eight months after the Battle of Minden, she gave birth to Lafayette's sister, who died less than three months later. Lafayette, growing up at Chavaniac, seldom saw his mother over the next several years.
Children often respond to the death of a parent with feelings of betrayal or abandonment and sometimes the fear that they are somehow to blame. Lafayette was too young to react that way toward his father's death, but having no fatherly presence left an empty space in his life. How he viewed his mother's absence–she off amid the splendor of Paris and Versailles, either enjoying social life or indulging in religious observance–will never be known. However much it must have affected him, in later years he was charitable rather than bitter toward her. "My mother," he said in one of his few references to her, "was a woman of lively temperament who had once had a liking for the frivolous, but after her husband's death had plunged into religion with all the strength of her character. Though she loved me devotedly it would never have occurred to her to take me away from my La Fayette grandmother, for whom she had a deep reverence."
European nobles were notorious for the hands-off way they raised their children. Their marriages were arranged and often loveless, dynastic contracts between rich families to produce offspring and legitimize the transfer of titles and property between generations. The children grew up under the guidance of tutors and nurses until it became time for them to marry and for the boys to become military cadets. Lafayette was fortunate among his generation in that he was closely raised and loved by blood relations.
His grand-mère paternelle, Edouard's widow, had brought Chavaniac into the family as part of her dowry. She had lived in the house since 1701. Madame de Chavaniac was an unusually enlightened mistress over the family's estates, allowing the peasants to hunt and garden on her lands and to take firewood from her forests. When times were hard she made sure nobody went hungry. Moreover, she was a canny businesswoman who expanded the family's properties. She also bought out all supervising feudal rights over Lafayette, so he owed allegiance to no lord but the king.
With her at Chavaniac was her spinster daughter, Madeleine, mademoiselle du Motier. When Lafayette was five, the household was joined by Madeleine's widowed sister, Charlotte Guèrin, baronne de Chavaniac, and her six-year-old daughter, Marie de Guèrin, who became like a sister to him. Lafayette, an unusually beautiful, cherubic little boy, grew up among–not under the supervision of–three generations of females, who doted on him.
In fact, they let him run wild. He roamed over the estate playing games, especially war games, and dragooned peasant boys into following him in mock battles and parades. "From the time I was eight," he recalled years later, "I longed for glory." A cousin visited Chavaniac in 1768, when Gilbert was ten, and reported that he saw in the boy the "seed of self-esteem and even of ambition." The seed thus planted was of what Thomas Jefferson later described as Lafayette's "canine appetite for popularity and fame."
At the age of eight, Lafayette recalled when he was twenty-two, his heart pounded when he heard of a hyena that was wreaking havoc in the neighborhood. What he referred to was the "Hyena of the Gévaudan," which showed up in the area in 1765. It killed livestock, terrorizing the region enough that the king sent royal gamekeepers to bag it. When a newspaper said that somebody named Lafayette had met the beast and run from it, he wrote a vicious letter to the editor, which his aunt intercepted.
The monster continued to roam the territory until 1787, when a hunter killed it. If it was the same animal that had appeared two decades earlier, it turned out to be either a big lynx or a wolf (accounts differ) with an inflated reputation. That was not enough for Lafayette about twenty years further on. Typically revising his early life in his memoirs, he described the "Beast of the Gévaudan" as the killer of 120 women and children along with its usual diet of sheep. He claimed that he grabbed his father's musket from the wall and headed into the forest when the monster first appeared, but his tutor and aunts made him come home.
Lafayette's glorious obsessions were fueled by his education at Chavaniac. His grandmother hired his first tutor when he was five. Two years later an itinerant pedagogue, the Abbé Fayon, entered the household, and stayed to teach the young marquis and his cousin. Daily instruction emphasized reading, writing, and arithmetic, along with such broader learning as children their age could take.
This generation of young Frenchmen was saturated with the virtues of the Roman Republic, especially through the writings of Plutarch, Livy, and Tacitus. Lafayette first encountered Julius Caesar's Commentaries under Fayon's guidance. He gained a valuable insight from the Roman's work: a writer can brag about himself shamelessly and get away with it if he writes in the third person. The various reminiscences and memoirs that began pouring out of him in the late 1770s were often written that way.
"But a child's real education," Lafayette said, "comes from the feelings and the attitude of the family in which he grows up. . . . It was but natural that I should hear much talk of war and glory among close relatives whose minds were ever filled with memories and regrets and a profound veneration for my father's memory." What he received was a combination of history from Fayon and family yarns from his grand-maman. Since his was a military family, it was military glory that he absorbed most.
The line of soldiers whose portraits in shining armor decorated the walls of Chavaniac extended back 700 years. In 1250 Lafayettes rode in the Sixth Crusade and, according to family lore, captured the Crown of Thorns from the Saracens. In the next century Gilbert de Lafayette II fought England's Black Prince Edward at Poitiers, one of the great battles of the Hundred Years' War. In 1428, Gilbert III, marechal de France, was Joan of Arc's general at Orléans, smashing the beef-eating Anglais and saving French independence. There was Lafayette blood shed aplenty, up to his grandfather's three wounds and his father's ghastly death.