Image courtesy of Colonial National Historical Park, Yorktown.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Meeting Notes: January 15, 2014

The Marquis de Lafayette in person (Charles Wessinger)

For the first time in nearly 200 years the Marquis de Lafayette returned to the City of Richmond, and reminisced before an audience about his early life in France and some of his military campaigns during the American Revolution.

 Historical interpreter Charles Wessinger, dressed in a Continental Army major general uniform and speaking throughout the program in a French accent, portrayed the Marquis de Lafayette at the January 15, 2014 meeting of the American Revolution Roundtable of Richmond. Wessinger has worked on stage, film and commercials in portrayals of characters from the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Civil War and World War II. He began his Lafayette program with a brief review of Lafayette’s ancestry.

 Lafayette was born in the south central part of France on September 6, 1757. He came from a long line of military ancestors, in fact one of the longest lines in France. When Lafayette was only two years old, his father was killed at the Battle of Minden while serving as a colonel in the French grenadiers. “My father was blown out of his boots by a British cannonball,” said Lafayette/Wessinger.

 Lafayette’s mother died when he was age 12, leaving him a huge estate which included eight mansions, several French businesses and a very large amount of money. At the age of 14 he became a page to the king and queen of France, and joined the royal musketeers.

 “Perhaps you have heard of the Three Musketeers, “ asked Lafayette/Wessinger to his roundtable audience. “I belonged to the king’s black musketeers, which got its name from the black horses which the regiment rode. There was also a gray musketeers regiment which rode gray horses.”

 By the age of 16 Lafayette had risen to the rank of lieutenant and married his wife who was only 14 years old. During his military service in the mid 1770s Lafayette became familiar with many of the disputes between Great Britain and her American colonies. He sympathized with the Americans, and at a Paris dinner he met Silas Deane and Benjamin Franklin---two of the Americans serving as commissioners in France on behalf of the Continental Congress. They encouraged him to support the American Revolution, and Deane promised Lafayette a commission with the rank of major general if he would join the American army.

 Lafayette accepted Deane’s offer and made arrangements to sail to America at his own expense. He bought a ship which he re-named La Victoire and hired his own crew to sail him and a few friends across the Atlantic Ocean.

 “We landed at Georgetown, South Carolina,” said Lafayette/Wessinger. “The Americans shot at my ship because they thought we were British but finally we were able to take a small boat to shore, walk a few miles and then convince the Americans that we were French and trying to help them.”

 When Lafayette told his new American friends that he needed to report to the Continental Congress, the South Carolinians told him that he needed to go to Philadelphia. “I said where is this Philadelphia, let’s go. I had no idea that it would take over 30 days to get there,” laughed Lafayette/Wessinger.

 Upon his arrival in Philadelphia, Lafayette and his travelling companions received a less than hospitable reception from members of the Continental Congress. Unknown to Lafayette was the fact that Silas Deane had promised many other Frenchmen the rank of major general in the American army if they sailed to America. Most of these Frenchmen were bakers, blacksmiths and other artisans who had little or no military experience.

 "At first when I tried to claim my commission as a major general, they laughed at me and told me I was but a child,” said Lafayette/Wessinger. “Finally I was able to show them a letter written by Benjamin Franklin which introduced me, and mentioned some of my experience in military college and the musketeers, as well as my family background.”

 Congressional leaders apologized to Lafayette for the less than hospitable greeting but told him the government didn’t have any money to pay him a major general’s salary. After Lafayette volunteered to pay his own way Congress told him they couldn’t use him because they didn’t have any regiments for him to command, however they welcomed him to serve on General George Washington’s staff. Although Lafayette strongly wanted a field commission, he accepted the position as a staff officer to Washington. At the age of only 19, Lafayette was the youngest general in the American army.

 “It was 1777,” said Lafayette/Wessinger. “As I went around the American camp with General Washington, I saw the best of his army and the worst of his army. I spent my own money toward buying uniforms and ammunition for the army but I must say it was extremely difficult since most of my money was in France, and my relatives wouldn’t send it.”

 Lafayette’s relatives were angry with him for the abrupt and clandestine manner in which he left France and sailed to America. Prior to departing he had been afraid to tell any relatives, including his wife, about his travel plans for fear that they would try to stop him. In addition to his family, King Louis XVI and other French government officials were opposed to his trip.

 The Battle of Brandywine Creek was Lafayette’s first combat in America. During the early stages of the battle he served behind the front lines as a staff officer but when the British turned the American right flank, Washington agreed to send Lafayette into the fight. Lafayette helped to rally the outflanked and outnumbered American troops into an orderly retreat.

 At some point during the battle Lafayette was wounded in the left leg. He first noticed the wound when blood started coming out of his left boot but he ignored the wound until he had finished rallying his retreating troops. When Washington learned that Lafayette had been wounded and was in the field hospital, he sent his personal surgeon to Lafayette’s aid with the instructions to “treat him as if you were treating my adopted son.”

 Lafayette recovered from his leg wound and later rejoined Washington’s army during the early stages of the 1777-78 winter at Valley Forge. When America’s newly created Board of War offered Lafayette the opportunity to transfer to Albany in order to prepare a new army for an invasion of Canada, Lafayette accepted. He didn’t know that the real purpose for the Board of War’s offer was to separate him from Washington. In what became known as the Conway Cabal, several American generals and congressmen tried to replace Washington as the overall American commander with General Horatio Gates, and used the Board of War (headed by Gates) to move Lafayette away from Washington because Lafayette was one of Washington’s most loyal and influential subordinates.

 Shortly after arriving in Albany, Lafayette saw where his assigned troops were too few in number and in no condition to make a winter invasion of Canada since they had no winter clothing. He also learned the truth behind the Conway Cabal and immediately supported Washington in correspondence to Congress. The plot to overthrow Washington failed, and Lafayette returned to Washington’s army at Valley Forge when the Canada invasion was canceled.

 The alliance between America and France was officially announced to the world in March 1778, which in effect served as France’s declaration of war on Great Britain. In February 1779 Lafayette was granted a furlough in order to return to France and encourage the French government to send a large army and more ships to fight in America. Lafayette advised King Louis XVI to allow French generals and admirals to serve under Washington’s overall command. General Rochambeau, the French general who would command the French troops going to America, agreed with Lafayette on the need for Washington to serve as overall commander. However, the French navy was not placed under Washington’s authority.

 “Generals and admirals don’t work well together, said Lafayette/Wessinger. “Admirals don’t like talking to generals so it was agreed that only French generals and not French admirals would serve under General Washington. Our admirals were encouraged to listen to American suggestions and to work with the Americans when they could, but weren’t required to do so.”

 When Lafayette returned to America in April 1780 he brought a ship full of supplies and ammunition, as well as the good news to Washington about France’s plans to send an army and more ships to America in a few months. Shortly after Rochambeau arrived at Newport, RI in July, Washington sent Lafayette to Rochambeau’s headquarters to discuss strategy. “I didn’t get along very well with General Rochambeau,” said Lafayette/Wessinger. “He wasn’t use to someone being a major general who was so much younger than he was.” Rochambeau was 55 years old, more than twice Lafayette’s age.

 In September 1780 Lafayette was with Washington on the trip to West Point when Benedict Arnold, the American commander at West Point, turned traitor. After Arnold resurfaced in January 1781 as a British general leading a British raid on Richmond, Washington sent Lafayette south that spring with 1,200 troops to stop Arnold and to “bring him to the gallows”, if Lafayette captured Arnold.

 The British sent their own army to support Arnold under the command of William Phillips. Although the British outnumbered his army over two to one, Lafayette managed to contain the British forces and to keep Phillips and Arnold out of Richmond in May 1781. Later that month Phillips died from typhus and Charles Cornwallis arrived in the area with part of his army that had fought in the Carolinas.

 Cornwallis received orders to take all of the British troops in Central Virginia to the east coast and establish a supply base where his army could receive provisions and combat support from the British navy. As Cornwallis’ army marched eastward, Lafayette’s much smaller army shadowed him. At times Lafayette’s troops would take advantage of skirmishing with the British. “We learned from the Indians how to fire and move, fire and move,” said Lafayette/Wessinger.

 After Cornwallis selected Yorktown as his supply base Lafayette’s troops camped outside Yorktown, and waited for Washington and Rochambeau to bring their much larger armies to entrap Cornwallis. On September 5, 1781 the French navy defeated the British navy at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, which basically shut off Cornwallis’ supply lines to the outside world. On September 28 Washington and Rochambeau arrived with their armies, and the Siege of Yorktown was underway. The combined American/French armies outnumbered the British more than two to one.

 Under the realigned American army Lafayette was given command of one of Washington’s three divisions. On October 14 a regiment in Lafayette’s division, which was led by Alexander Hamilton, charged into Redoubt #10 after dark and captured the key British position with a minimal loss of life. In a separate attack a French regiment captured the adjacent Redoubt #9. With the loss of the two key redoubts the British came under point blank bombardment, and surrendered five days later.

 Just a few weeks after Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown, Lafayette set sail for France where upon his return he was treated as a national hero. Wessinger concluded his presentation with Lafayette’s return and then took questions from the audience on a variety of topics, ranging from the American Revolution to the French Revolution, plus Lafayette’s 1824-25 tour of 24 American states.

 In addition to portraying Lafayette, Wessinger’s other portrayals include James Madison, Francis Scott Key and the British spy John Andre.
--Bill Seward

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