Lafayette’s Farewell Tour: Why Lafayette?

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Lafayette (right) and Washington at Valley Forge. By John Ward Dunsmore (1907)

America stood poised on the cusp of celebrating the golden anniversary of its birth as a nation. With all the rising patriotism came a burst of nostalgia. America’s first and greatest generation—the heroes of the Revolutionary War—were fast leaving their mortal coil. The heirs of that founding cohort desperately wanted one last chance to hear the tales of that victory from those that were there.

Of all the people they might select to focus on, why choose a Frenchman born to the aristocracy?

Well, for one thing, his life story shows he had long ago shorn off the mantle of gentry. Indeed, he not only had the physical scars of Brandywine to prove it, he also had the mental scars earned from the prison at Olmütz. But there was more to Lafayette than these undeniable badges of courage.

He was truly one of us.

It starts with his role in the American Revolution. You saw earlier of his exploits at Brandywine (see “Lafayette’s Tour: The Duty That Held Him Back,” Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel, January 25, 2024). He did more than that. Much more.

Though a teenager when he arrived on America’s shores, Lafayette quickly established himself both in the eyes of the Continental Army and on the radar of the enemy. The British, and Cornwallis in particular, were keen to capture the young Frenchman.

One of the first documented attempts occurred at the Battle of Monmouth. According to a British report, “The enemy’s cavalry, commanded it is said by M. LaFayette, having approached within our reach, they were charged with great spirit by the Queen’s light dragoons. They did not wait for the shock, but fell back in confusion upon their own infantry.”1

The Battle of Monmouth was a mess, apparently for both sides, although more for the Americans. This report appears to be a reference to an attempt to capture Lafayette. It was really a case of mistaken identity. Instead of Lafayette, it was Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben who led those troops. The baron barely escaped (but lost his hat in the process).

Not to be dismayed, a few years later during the early summer of 1781, Cornwallis did get the better of Lafayette. He still didn’t catch him.

The Redcoats reported, “The attack was begun by the first line with great spirit there being nothing but militia opposed to the Light Infantry; the action was soon over on the right, but Lieut. Col. Dunda’s brigade, consisting of the 43d, 76th, and 80th regiments, which formed the left wing, meeting the Pennsylvania line, and a detachment of the Marquis de la Fayette’s Continentals, with two six pounders, a smart action ensued for some minutes, which the enemy gave way, and abandoned their cannon. The cavalry were ready to pursue, but the darkness of the evening prevented his Lordship making use of them.”2

This was the famous incident where Cornwallis tricked Lafayette into thinking the British were retreating. Lafayette reported the false intelligence to his command before acting on it.3

Despite the setback, Lafayette kept his eyes on Cornwallis’ movements. He was surprised when the British General left himself exposed at Yorktown. Lafayette convinced both the French and George Washington to exploit this vulnerability. They did, and the Franco-American victory at Yorktown sealed the fate of the American Revolution.

In a letter to his wife, Lafayette summarized the Virginia events thusly: “The end of this campaign is truly brilliant for the allied troops. There was a rare coordination in our movements, and I would be finicky indeed if I were not pleased with the end of my campaign in Virginia. You must have been informed of all the toil the superiority and talents of Lord Cornwallis gave me and of the advantage that we then gained in recovering lost ground, until at length we had Lord Cornwallis in the position we needed in order to capture him. It was then that everyone pounced on him.”4

Between these two events, Lafayette proved himself a vigorous advocate for the American patriots. In 1780, the King of France issued a proclamation of the new Franco-American alliance. In that edict, he cited Lafayette’s role.5 America might have hated the English king, but they cheered the French king.

During the fight for independence, Lafayette developed a strong bond with George Washington. Evidence that Lafayette enjoyed a close friendship with the man destined to be dubbed “The Father of His Country” can be found in the number of letters our first President wrote to his Revolutionary War ally. From March 1778 through December 1798, Washington penned roughly seventy letters to Lafayette.6

In his last letter to Lafayette, Washington expressed the warm regards he had for his “dear friend.” He closes the letter with this final line: “I shall now only add, what you knew well before, that, with the most sincere friendship and affectionate regard, I am always yours.”7

Once the war was over, Lafayette proved his faith in the new country he helped create. He remained committed to American ideals. That commitment would get him in trouble when he espoused those ideals in Europe. He remained, however, adamant as to the source of those principles.

In 1818, he created a political club in Paris and served as its president. In one meeting, “the members discussed the advantages of a Republican Government, like that of the U. States, and it was unanimously agreed, that it was the best possible government, far superior to the highly boasted Government of Great Britain.”8

While this was happening across the pond, people in the United States carefully crafted their origin story, beginning with the Revolutionary War. According to a home art exhibit in 1805, it became “a representation of figures of great characters.” Among those characters you would find Lafayette.9

By the early 1820s, America was ripe to remember. Contemporary newspaper articles bluntly told this story. One paper summed this up when it printed, “every thing relating to the revolutionary war, is of deep interest to the generation, and the surviving patriots, together with every documentary evidence of their principle and services, are the property of the country.”10

This nostalgic fervor and its ticking clock weren’t limited to the American people. Lafayette felt it himself. His 1822 letter to Colonel Marinus Willet describes the feeling. In it, he wrote, “no time or distance can abate the patriotic remembrances and personal affections of our revolutionary times. We remain, but too few survivors of that glorious epoch, in which the fate of two hemispheres has been decided. It is an additional monitor to think more of the ties of brotherly friendship which united us. May it be in my power, before I join our departed companions, to visit such of them as are still inhabitants of the United States, and to tell you, personally, my dear Willet, how affectionately, I am your sincere friend.”11

Lafayette’s tour of 1824 and 1825 would result in his reunion and celebration with those surviving Revolutionary War Veterans. It also gave younger generations an opportunity to share in these deeply emotional meetings.

Before seeing what those events looked like in the Greater Western New York Region, we’ll first give you a taste for how this tour grew from a quick four-month visit to a stay that saw him finally return to France sixteen months after he originally departed from Le Havre.

Next Week: Overview Of The 1824-1825 American Tour (Part I)

1 The Bath Chronicle [Bath, Avon, England], Thursday, August 27, 1778, p.3
2 The Leeds Intelligencer and Yorkshire General Advertiser [Leeds, West Yorkshire, England], Tuesday, August 28, 1781, p.3
3 The Freeman’s Journal or The North American Intelligencer [Philadelphia, Pennsylvania], Wednesday, July 11, 1781, p.3
4 “Lafayette and the Virginia Campaign 1781,” National Park Service,, retrieved February 18, 2024
5 Cambridge Chronicle and Journal [Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, England], Saturday, October 28, 1780, p.1
6 The Writings of George Washington, Vol. XIV. 1798-1799, Worthington Chauncey Ford, The Knickerbocker Press, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1983, pp.452-453
7 Ibid, p.128
8 “Republicanism in France,” Vermont Republican and American Yeoman, Monday, June 1, 1818, p.3
9 “Will Be Exhibited,” 1805.08.23 Lancaster Intelligencer and Journal [Lancaster, Pennsylvania], Friday, August 23, 1805, p.3
10 “Gen. La Fayette, and Col. Willet,” North Star [Danville, Vermont], Thursday, November 7, 1822, p.1
11 Ibid


  1. […] a Frenchman became the centerpiece of this celebration? Read this week’s Carosa Commentary “Lafayette’s Farewell Tour: Why Lafayette?” to find out why this seemed so natural and fitting at the time (and still does […]

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