The 'Headers In Life & Legend
by Russell W. Knight
|In 1784, the Marquis de Lafayette came to Marblehead to renew old ties with several of his friends from the American Revolution. And, needless to say, that twenty-seven-year-old French aristocrat received a rousing welcome.
As elsewhere throughout the colonies, the townspeople of Marblehead remembered the important role Lafayette had played in the great conflict. They recalled how he had aided the patriot cause when it was weak and vulnerable, given thousands of dollars to the United Colonies of America when they were only loosely allied, joined Washington's ragged army when it was in dire straits, and breathed new life into the war for independence at a time when its very outcome was unpredictable and precarious.
Though he was not quite twenty-one years old in 1777, the young and inexperienced nobleman soon proved to be a first-rate soldier, an officer whose boundless enthusiasm and sparkling personality instilled vim and vigor into an army that was downhearted and tuckered-out; an officer whose self-assurance and devotion to the patriot cause gave a much needed shot in the arm to what had become a moribund struggle.
The Marquis de Lafayette (Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier) was born in France on September 6, 1756, the only son of an ancient and noble family. His father, a French Army colonel, was killed in battle when Lafayette was just two years old. And eleven years later his mother passed away, leaving him the sole heir to a princely fortune.
Three years later, at age sixteen, Lafayette married the daughter of one of the most influential families in France. He soon wearied of Court life, however, having already developed what he himself described as "an ardent love of liberty." Thus, when he learned that the American colonies sought to sever their ties with England, he resolved to offer his services to General Washington.
"My heart," Lafayette explained, "espoused warmly the cause of liberty." Accordingly, he determined to offer the American colonies the "aid of his banner."
Although it has been reported that Lafayette joined the Continental Army in search of fame and glory, that opinion does not ring true. First, he contributed more than $200,000 to the embattled colonies. And second, he never once asked to be repaid or reimbursed for the money he had given. So, it would appear that Lafayette was exactly what he said he was, an ardent and sincere lover of liberty, human rights and self-government.
But to the Marquis's dismay, he soon discovered that it was not quite as easy to join the patriot cause as he had anticipated. First of all, he had to remove a few obstacles before he could go to the aid of the American colonies.
It so happened that France and England were at peace. So, when King George of England learned that Lafayette planned to sail to America to join the rebel cause, the British ambassador to France literally raised the roof. He informed the French ministry that if the Marquis was permitted to leave France, such an action would be a breach of the peace and an act of war!
It was a thinly-veiled threat, yet it proved effective partly because France was not at all sure that the colonies had the will and the resources necessary to win their independence, and partly because the King himself was loath to involve France either directly or indirectly in a losing cause. Thus, Lafayette was denied permission to leave the country.
This denial would have discouraged anyone less resolute than Lafayette. But inasmuch as he had plenty of spunk, plenty of money and plenty of brains, he quickly figured out a way to sail to America!
He bought a good, seaworthy bark and was about to put to sea when he was apprehended and placed under house arrest. However, the irrepressible young Frenchman was once again not to be denied. When an opportunity arose, he disguised himself as a workman and gave his jailers the slip! He then made his way to Spain where he boarded the bark that he had sent there a few weeks earlier.
Two months later, after a long and uncomfortable voyage across a heaving ocean, a heaving Lafayette landed on an island off the coast of South Carolina. And from there, he traveled by carriage through 900 miles of region that he greatly admired for its "youth and majesty."
To Lafayette's consternation, however, he received a very chilly reception when he arrived at Philadelphia. There, he was told by a member of the Congress that the French had a great fancy to enter the service of the United Colonies without being invited. They no longer needed help from any foreigners because the colonies now had plenty of experienced officers of their own!
In all fairness, the Marquis de Lafayette came to this country at a time when the Congress was besieged by scores of European soldiers of fortune, adventurers who wanted to be commissioned as high-ranking officers in the Continental Army. In many instances, the rude and thoughtless attitude of the Congress turned away many a competent applicant. But the Marquis de Lafayette was not prepared to accept defeat. He had not come to America to be rejected by a difficult Congress, not after having defied his king, outwitted his jailers and sneaked undetected to Spain.
So, what did he do?
He just sat himself down and wrote the Congress a letter. Mincing no words, he informed that body that:
"After the sacrifices I have made, I have the right to expect two favors -- one is to serve at my own expense, and the other is to serve as a volunteer."
Happily, Lafayette's straightforward approach worked. On July 31, 1777, the 21-year-old French nobleman who had never fought in a battle, never heard a bullet whine past his head and who could speak only a few words of English, was commissioned a major general by a Congress now duly impressed by his "zeal-illustrious family -- and prestigious connections!"
At a formal dinner a few weeks later, Lafayette had the good fortune to meet General Washington, who promptly took a liking to him. It was a truly fortuitous meeting, the beginning of what would become a lifelong friendship, or more accurately, the birth of a father-son relationship that would link the tall and stately Virginian to the tall and handsome Frenchman to the end of their days. Shortly after that dinner, the Congress received this letter from General Washington:
"The Marquis de Lafayette is extremely solicitous of having a command equal to his rank. I do not know in what light the Congress will view the matter, but it appears to me, that from a consideration of his illustrious and important connextions, and the attachment which he has manifested to our cause, that it will be advisable to gratify his wishes, and the more so as several gentlemen from France who came over under some assurance have gone back disappointed in their expectations. His conduct with respect to them stands in a favorable point of view having interested himself to remove their uneasiness and urged the impropriety of their making any unfavorable representations upon their arrival home. Besides, he is sensible, discreet in his manners, has made great proficience in our language, and from the dispositions he discovered at the Battle of the Brandywine [where by the way he was wounded] he possesses a large share of bravery and military ardor."
The Congress promptly accepted Washington's recommendation, and gave the Marquis command of a division of light infantry, troops who had been trained to fight and run, to attack at a moment's notice, and to constantly annoy, bedevil and harass the enemy at any and all hours day or night!
General Washington subsequently invited his youthful protłęgłę to join his staff, probably for two reasons; first, Washington, a Southerner by birth, was inclined to favor those whom he considered "gentlemen," and second, he not only admired Lafayette's exquisite manners, but was deeply impressed by his flair for winning friends and soothing the ruffled feelings of officers whom he outranked.
Furthermore, Lafayette had made it clear from the beginning that he had not come to America to tell the colonies how to wage a war. Instead, he had come to offer the colonies his wholehearted support and to assist them in any way possible. It is also to his credit that he always stressed the fact that he had come to the colonies to learn, to observe and to study how the colonists worked, played and administered their civic affairs.
It was this attitude that won the youthful Frenchman a host of friends among fellow officers who all too often had had to endure the carping comments of a number of European-trained soldiers of fortune. Under the circumstances, Lafayette's disposition, understanding and adaptability quickly won him scores of friends and well-wishers.
However, there was one thing that bothered the Marquis to no end: That was the overall appearance of the Continental Army. He found Washington's troops ill-clad, ill-equipped and ill-trained. The army's ranks were filled by farmers, trappers, fishermen and day laborers, and it lacked the strict military discipline, showy uniforms and skills and order common to European armies.
But Lafayette soon changed his mind. The troops that he judged awkward, he quickly discovered to be first-rate soldiers. Their officers were zealous and able, and each day Washington's motley forces got better and better. And because he had the means to do so, Lafayette purchased several horses and a number of well-tailored uniforms. In fact, one of those uniforms would be ruined a few weeks later when an enemy bullet pierced the Marquis's thigh, putting him out of action for two months!
Today, it is generally agreed that the tide of war began to change in 1777 in favor of the Americans due to Colonel John Glover and his web-footed soldiers, the Marbleheaders who had ferried some 2,500 thread-bare Continentals across the Delaware River only a few months earlier. But in the summer of 1777, no one-including Washington-knew that. However, they did know that an army of 6,000 British troops and German mercenaries was preparing to invade the Hudson River Valley in a drive designed to split the beleaguered colonies in two.
Had that invasion succeeded, the revolution would probably have ended then and there! But for once, fate favored the patriot cause. The timely capture of a British spy by Glover's men, aided by a savage and well-fought battle by the Continental army forced Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne to surrender.
It was a tremendous victory for the Americans, a victory that instilled a new fighting spirit in the oft-defeated Continentals. It also forced the seemingly invincible British Army to abandon several strategic strongholds and to remove their garrisons to Canada.
It was a triumph beyond price. In addition to capturing a huge supply of arms and military equipment, the Americans also won something of much greater value. Within two days after the King of France had learned that the United Colonies had defeated the British at Saratoga, he officially recognized the birth of the new nation. Within two months, France became America's ally to be joined not long after that by Spain and Holland, who also entered the war on the side of the United Colonies of America! Thus assuring the ultimate outcome of that long, drawn-out conflict.
(Incidentally, when Burgoyne and his 6,000 troops were marched to a prison camp in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the officer chosen to escort them there was none other than Major General John Glover!)
With France as an ally, the Marquis de Lafayette was the man of the hour -- or more precisely -- the gentleman of the hour. Yet here in Marblehead, a town reeking of tar, gurry and "overripe" fish, lived a young man who was not only the man of the hour, but also a gentleman! That man was Elbridge Gerry, a 30-year-old native-born Marbleheader whom the Reverend William Bentley declared was "the nearest to a gentleman of any northern patriot."
Like Lafayette, Gerry was a well-educated, well-to-do, dyed-in-the-wool radical. But unlike his French compatriot, Mr. Gerry was never idolized, revered or lauded by the general public despite the fact that he was the most adaptable and resourceful of all the Founding Fathers. And Mr. Gerry was a statesman whose ideas and convictions were destined to play an important part in molding a colony into a state, and a group of states into a nation.
Yet, whereas Lafayette and the Father of our Country became fast friends, the same cannot be said of Mr. Gerry because he and Washington never hit it off. This was true mostly because Gerry was temperamentally opposed to a large standing army, fearing that one might eventually lead to a military dictatorship.
It is a shame that Washington and Gerry never became friends. For each was a man of integrity, dedication and resolve, and each was a staunch, determined patriot. On the other hand, Mr. Gerry and the Marquis de Lafayette shared many characteristics: each was an idealist seeking to establish a society free of tyranny, oppression and want. Ironically, it was Lafayette -- the French nobleman -- whom the Americans took to heart and not Elbridge Gerry, a Founding Father and ardent revolutionist who worked around the clock to encourage and promote the war for independence. A Marbleheader who used the experience and business skills he had acquired in his father's counting house to obtain the supplies the Continental Army needed, be it guns, food, tents or whatever!
Moreover, of the two, Gerry was much more familiar with the pressing needs of the impecunious colonists than the rich and well-born Marquis. Gerry was both a human dynamo and an outstanding rabble-rouser, a patriot whose tireless pen kept alive the spirit of independence. It is also to his credit that he was the first to urge Washington to form a navy! Elbridge Gerry! A Marbleheader whose idealistic vision not only included the town, but spread beyond the borders of the Bay Colony and the shores of the Eastern seaboard! A true statesman!
They were an interesting pair, the youthful Lafayette whose bubbling personality and poise gave the patriot cause the lift it needed in 1777, and Gerry, whose indefatigable drive throughout those nerve-wracking years helped nurture and shape the nation we know today. Two gentlemen, two idealists who in the prime of youth risked life, liberty and fortune for the sake of future generations; two Revolutionary War friends, to whom every American living and dead is deeply indebted!
General Lafayette returned to France shortly after Lord Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, Virginia, thus bringing to an end the military career that he had so actively pursued and so admirably discharged.
Three years later, Lafayette returned to America upon the invitation of George Washington, then retired and living at Mount Vernon, Virginia. Lafayette's vessel landed in New York early in August, 1784, and from the day he arrived he was truly the man of the hour.
Wherever Lafayette went, he was greeted by thousands of admirers and welcomed by scores of civic leaders. He was tendered sumptuous dinners, honored at lavish parties, fancy dress balls and entertained at countless social gatherings. The towns and cities through which he passed were bedecked with flags and bunting. Houses were festooned with greenery, and the blare of marching bands, the thunder of cannon and the din of church bells rattled windows and rent the air.
When Lafayette arrived in Boston, he was greeted with a thirteen-gun salute, followed immediately by an ear-shattering salvo from the guns of a French fleet anchored in Boston harbor. And there, as elsewhere, he was wined and dined around the clock.
Here in Marblehead, Lafayette was tendered an equally rousing welcome. He was greeted by a committee of civic leaders and escorted into town by a fife and drum corps through streets lined with hundreds of men, women and children.
And here, on what then was the town's training field, the town fathers thoughtfully dispensed a little something to elevate the soul. And here, where Abbot Hall now stands, General Lafayette was paid this tribute:
"Sir -- We the Citizens of Marblehead -- with open arms and affectionate hearts -- welcome your return to these United States.
"Your early attachment to the cause of America -- THE CAUSE OF MANKIND -- all conspire to re-animate our breasts with that superlative esteem and respect we have long entertained for the Marquis de Lafayette.
"Our loss of men and property in the glorious conflict may deprive us of the pleasure of fully manifesting the principles of hospitality we feel on this occasion. But, sir, we are happy in the assurance that your magnanimity will consider our circumstances as a misfortune, not a fault.
"We assure you -- Sir -- with utmost sincerity that we are deeply interested in your welfare -- and happy when honored by your company -- And we flatter ourselves that the present interview is only a prelude to similar favors from yourself and friends who now accompany you."
The Marquis then thanked the speaker and read these words from the original manuscript penned by Lafayette that now graces the wall of the Selectmen's Room in Abbot Hall:*
* Presented to the Town of Marblehead by R.W. K., 4 February 1987.
"Gentlemen -- While I have the satisfaction -- once more to enter a town which so early fought and so freely bled in the great conflict admiration mingles with the tender concerns of a sympathizing heart. But, amidst our regrets of brave men who had the honor to fall in their country's cause, I rejoice in the virtuous spirit and animating industry remarkable in the remaining sons of Marblehead. May your losses be an hundred fold repaired by all the blessings of peace and plenty. And may your numerous posterity in the preservation of that liberty so gloriously purchased ever venerate the memory of their ancestors.
"Equally proud of your esteem and happy in your friendship gentlemen, I heartily thank you for your kind wishes and so honorable a welcome and will most pleasingly anticipate every opportunity to present you with the affectionate tribute of my respect and gratitude."
When that well-attended public reception ended, the Marquis was escorted to what a newspaper has described as a "genteel" house, Elbridge Gerry's large and impressive home, the house that still stands across from the Old North Church.
There, he was royally entertained. And there, Mr. Gerry and General Glover and a host of wartime friends renewed their ties with Lafayette, no doubt swapping many all-but-forgotten tales of the past.
It was a gala affair, an eat, drink and be merry kind of dinner. If it were not, it should have been. Because back in those days, it was a custom for those attending a formal dinner to honor the thirteen colonies by drinking thirteen toasts:
1. To the United States in Congress assembled
2. To our Magnanimous ally, His Most Christian Majesty
3. To the Queen and Royal Family of France
4. To the Commonwealth of Massachusetts
5. To their High Mightinesses, the Citizens of the United
6. To THE AMERICAN FABIUS*
7. To the firm Asserters of Liberty in every part of the
8. To the Memory of the Heroes who have fought, bled and
died in the Glorious cause of their country
9. To the American Ministers in Europe
10. To the celebrated statesman, Mr. John Jay
11. To the three Pillars of our Wealth, Agriculture,
Fishery and Commerce
12. May Wisdom in our Councils produce Permanancy in our
13. May Philanthropy and Benevolence universally prevail
*George Washington is here likened to Fabius, the Roman Army commander who defeated Hannibal by resorting to a series of harassing operations rather than facing enemy troops on the battlefield.
Under such circumstances, the dinner tendered Lafayette that night was undoubtedly a memorable affair.
It appears to have lacked one libation -- Whistlebelly Vengeance, the nectar of the gods, the rank and file's water of life! A tale (unauthenticated) insists that a band of patriots licked the hell out of a regiment of His Majesty's troops after each had downed a finger of this mouth-watering blend of stale bread and sour beer! 'Twas an unrivaled drink, they said, one that freed the spirits and liberated man's innate inhibitions!
(According to a time-honored tale, a quart of Redd's Pond water couldn't hold a candle to one finger of Whistlebelly Vengeance, once this tasty blend of stale bread and sour beer had been aged at least 30 minutes.)
To the regret of the townspeople, the Marquis announced that he would have to leave the next day to attend receptions in other places. The following morning, he left, his ears ringing with the plaudits of unnumbered scores of well-wishers, the clangor of church bells, the beat of drums and the wail of fifes. It was a truly unforgettable day, marked by unmistakable expressions of respect and admiration for a beloved and highly esteemed idol.
One month later, Lafayette sailed for France. But just before his ship cast off, he penned a short letter, which he addressed to Elbridge Gerry: "Before I go to France," he wrote, "give me leave once more to present my respects to you and your colleagues. And my best wishes for your continental state and private affairs."
Once back in his native land, the Marquis promptly launched a number of philanthropic and humanitarian projects, including one to abolish slavery! He also used his considerable influence to promote, foster and encourage trade between his country and the United States of America. One of his pet projects involved the sale and distribution of New England's sacred cod!
Forty years later, in 1824, President James Monroe invited General Lafayette to return again to America. And once again, the Marquis, now 67 years old, was received with open arms.
In Washington, he was escorted to the Capitol by a cavalcade of mounted troops past sidewalks jammed with cheering admirers, streets alive with flower-bedecked floats spaced between bands that played: "Hail the Conquering Chief," over and over again, a composition all too often drowned-out by ear-shattering salutes fired by a number of artillery companies.
It was a day of complete pandemonium!
When Lafayette arrived at the Capitol, he was greeted by 24 young ladies dressed in red, white and blue. Each carried a shield inscribed with the coat of arms of one of the nation's twenty-four states. There, he was welcomed by the President and his Cabinet in a tent that years earlier had sheltered his beloved friend, General George Washington, who had died in 1799.
He arrived in Marblehead in late August 1824, and was welcomed by a contingent of public officials, civic leaders, a brass band and the recently organized high-strutting Lafayette Guards.
His welcome that late summer day was as cordial and hearty as any he had ever received, yet one tinged, no doubt, with sadness. His long-time associate, Vice President Elbridge Gerry, had died in office in 1814. And his fellow officer, General John Glover, had passed away in 1797, as had many other friends and comrades.
Nevertheless, when the dinner tendered him at the Lee Mansion ended, the Marquis and his son, George Washington Lafayette, visited Mrs. Mary Glover Hooper, the only surviving daughter of his former companion-in-arms, General John Glover. It was a truly gracious gesture, a gesture that may well explain why the Marquis de Lafayette was the most popular man of his era.
For wherever he went, he was always greeted with "frenzied enthusiasm," demonstrations more graphically described by one newspaper as "unprecedented and unparalleled in American history!"
The fact is the Marquis de Lafayette was so greatly admired, lauded, acclaimed and extolled that a student would put this question to Mr. Douglas Freeman, a renowned American historian:
"Sir, can you tell me what it was about the Marquis de Lafayette that made him such a popular figure?"
Mr. Freeman shook his head ...
"History," he said, "has no answer!"
General Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, The Marquis de Lafayette, died in France at age seventy-seven, and was laid to rest in his native soil ...
In a grave crowned with earth from Bunker Hill!