COLUMN: Lafayette fights in the American Revolution

Published 11:30 am Monday, May 13, 2024

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Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series of articles leading up to the bicentennial celebration.

By Frank and Gloria Womble

On Sept. 12, 1777, the day after the Battle of Brandywine, Lafayette penned a letter to his wife, Adrienne, telling her that “… the English honored me with a musket shot, which wounded me slightly in the leg. But the wound is nothing, dear heart; the ball hit neither bone nor nerve, and all I have to do for it to heal is to lie on my back for a while – which puts me in very bad humor.” He was nursed back to health by the Moravian Brethren in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Lafayette was touched by “the gentle religion” of the Moravians. He saw them as an “innocent family” that managed to maintain its “community of goods, education and interests” despite the devastating war around them.

Lafayette was anxious to recover so he could return to the battlefield. He would get his first command at the Battle of Gloucester, New Jersey, on Nov. 25 and 26, 1777. Operating under General Nathanael Greene, he was sent out on a reconnaissance mission to determine the location and strength of Cornwallis’ army. Lafayette led 350 men toward the British position. He carefully scouted the British camp, at times personally coming within firing range of British sentries. He then led his men in a surprise attack on a forward picket of jaegers. The 400 Hessians were caught completely unprepared and began a disorganized fighting retreat toward the main British camp, with Lafayette and his men giving chase. Cornwallis sent some grenadiers to provide covering fire as the Germans retreated. Lafayette withdrew under cover of darkness, returning to Greene. Lafayette’s reconnaissance was a success, with only one killed and five wounded, against 60 casualties on the British side.

Washington and Lafayette were together at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, during the difficult and challenging 1777-1778 winter encampment. Lafayette would next see action at the Battle of Barren Hill, Pennsylvania, in May 1778, where he narrowly escaped encirclement and capture. He was at the Battle of Monmouth, New Jersey, in June 1778, where he assumed command of part of General Charles Lee’s forces and was in reserve.

Washington sent Lafayette to Rhode Island in July 1778 to aid General John Sullivan with his efforts against the British. The operation required cooperation with the French fleet commanded by Admiral Comte d’Estaing. However, d’Estaing departed for Boston to repair his ships after they were damaged in a storm and by shelling during an engagement with the British fleet. This angered the Americans, who felt abandoned by their French ally. Lafayette tried to mediate. Concerned about the Franco-American alliance and being homesick, Lafayette returned to France, where he was briefly placed under house arrest for his earlier disobedience to King Louis XVI. Upon his release, Lafayette worked with Benjamin Franklin, eventually convincing the king to increase French support for the “American Cause.”

The American Friends of Lafayette is partnering with Suffolk 250 and the Constantia Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution, to commemorate the bicentennial of Lafayette’s Farewell Tour with events in Suffolk in 2025: A memorabilia exhibit from Jan. 23 to March 1 at the Suffolk Center for the Cultural Arts; Lafayette’s arrival on Feb. 23 at the Suffolk Visitor Center/Riddick’s Folly; a banquet on Feb. 25 at the Hilton Garden Inn Suffolk Riverfront; and a reception on Feb. 26 at the Washington Smith Ordinary in Historic Somerton.